Full disclosure (I am so ashamed). It had been so long since I actually stopped to contemplate the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many of my fellow wage slaves, I usually anticipate it as just another one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I’m required to spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).
I’m not getting you down, am I?
Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.
Fair enough. OK, the nation as a whole has sort of fallen behind in the “strength, prosperity and well-being” part of that equation; but we’re working on that. Oh, and Labor Day isn’t the only “creation of the labor movement”. There’s also all that F.L.S.A. stuff about workplace rights and minimum wage and such on those posters in the break room that most of us don’t bother to read (even if we do all benefit from it). So I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh? At any rate, I thought I would cobble together my Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, pop in a DVD, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.
Blue Collar-This is one of Paul Schrader’s better directorial efforts, which he also co-wrote (along with his brother Leonard). Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play a trio of Motor City auto worker buddies who are tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they decide to pull an ill-advised ‘inside’ heist that gets them in very deep doo-doo with both parties, which ultimately puts friendship and loyalty to the test. Similar to Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (see below), Schrader is not afraid to paint over the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us that the road to Hell is frequently paved with good intentions (absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc.). I love the music score (by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder), especially with the late great Captain Beefheart growling, “I’m jest a hard-woikin’, FUCKED-over man” over that compelling “ShhhOOMP ba-bom ba-bom” industrial blues riff in the opening credits.
El Norte-Gregory Nava’s highly effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads give naturalistic, completely believable performances as the brother and sister whose optimism never falters, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobic viewers should be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing will give you nightmares. And don’t expect a Hollywood ending; this is an uncompromising look at the plight of undocumented workers and how they are exploited.
The Grapes of Wrath- I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful 1940 film (taken from John Steinbeck’s classic novel), so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this probably comes closest to nabbing the title as THE quintessential film about the struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.” Ford was on a roll; the very next year, he followed up with How Green Was My Valley, another classic about a working class family (this time set in a Welsh mining town) which snagged a ‘Best Picture’ Oscar.
Harlan County, USA-Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious (and murderously violent) coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky back in 1973, but easily rates as one of the best American documentaries of all time (I’d put it in the top 5…uh-oh, I smell a theme brewing for a future post). This has everything that you look for in, well, any great movie, documentary or otherwise: drama, conflict, suspense, even mystery. Kopple and her film crew are so thoroughly embedded in the milieu that you may find yourself ducking during the infamous and harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires off a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell the tale). Amazing.
Made in Dagenham-Even though it was on my “to do” list, I missed this one in theatres earlier this year (I can’t see ‘em all, folks) but managed to catch up with it on Starz just a few days ago (and got the inspiration for this post!). Based on a true story, it stars the delightful Sally Hawkins (who sparkled in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, which I reviewed here) as Rita O’Grady, a working mum who was employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of the pay scale enjoyed by the thousands of male employees (the company smoke-screened the inequity by classifying any female worker as “unskilled labor”). Encouraged by her kindly and empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and effect a change. An engaging ensemble piece (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister (she’s at her best when she’s playing ‘slyly subversive’). You know, we need to see more inspirational, progressive positive rabble-rousers like this opening at the local multiplex. So if it makes you feel like cheering, by all means, give in… because it is great therapy.
Matewan-It’s easy to forget that a lot of blood was spilled back in the day in order to lay the foundation for many of those labor laws we tend to take for granted in the modern workplace. John Sayles sets out to remind us about that in this well-acted and handsomely mounted drama. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia coal country. Chris Cooper is excellent (as always) portraying an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a violent local conflict between coal company thugs and fed-up miners who are desperately trying to unionize. Like all of the historical dramas he has tackled, Sayles delivers a compellingly complex narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in impeccable period detail (beautifully shot by one of the truly great cinematographers, Haskell Wexler). In addition to Cooper, you’ll recognize many Sayles “regulars” in this fine ensemble cast (like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell). The film features a great “rootsy” folk-blues-traditional bluegrass soundtrack (by John Hammond, Hazel Dickens, Mason Daring and others) that rivals that of the wildly popular O Brother Where Art Thou (which this film pre-dates by 13 years).
Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation (among other things) has aged quite well. This probably has everything to do with his uncannily timeless embodiment of the Everyman (the technology around us may be constantly evolving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are). Although frequently referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% “silent”. There’s no dialogue, per se, but Chaplin does find ingenious ways to work a few lines in (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin (a hapless assembly line worker) literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, prescient and hilarious.
Norma Rae-Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist launched what I have dubbed the “Whistle-blowin’ Workin’ Mom” subgenre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc). Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a ‘Best Actress’ Oscar) as the title character, who gets fired up (in more ways than one) by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). An inspiring film, bolstered by a fine screenplay (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and supporting cast (including Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley).
On the Waterfront-“It wuz you, Chahlee.” Oh, the betrayal! And the pain. It’s all right there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the best American dramas of the 1950s.
Roger and Me-While our favorite lib’rul agitprop documentarian has made several films addressing the travails of everyday wage slaves and the ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors (see Sicko and The Big One), Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 classic remains his best (and falls within the top 25 in the list of highest-grossing docs of all time). First-time filmmaker Moore may have not been the the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown right at the spike of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? If you’ve seen it, you know the answer. If you haven’t, I hope I’ve intrigued you to see this insightful and fascinating cultural snapshot of Middle America that is at once hilarious, heartbreaking, and hopeful.
…and for your dining and dancing pleasure (ShhhOOMP ba-bom ba-bom)…