Workers and labor have long been represented in film, from the first film projected for a paying audience (Louis Lumière’s 1895 documentary short “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”) to the massive output of movies by today’s various movie producers. The subjects can range from the serious to the humorous, from the satirical to the tragic, from educating to the simply entertaining. As a movie lover working at my local video rental store for over a decade, I’ve been able to explore the history of cinema at my whim, and here are 10 of my favorite films depicting working class issues:
“Office Space” (1999)
Mike Judge’s box office flop has gone on to become a cult film and touchstone for many in its skewering of office worker culture and restaurant work. Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, the film centers on an office worker whose dislike for his job leads him to rebel, which inspires his friends to do the same in varying degrees. Of course, this is a fantasy world where his actions lead him to promotion and not getting fired, but that’s part of the deal that comedies offer up for consumption – an escape from reality.
This critically lauded film has become a staple in teaching U.S. labor history. In 1920, a coal miners’ strike in a small West Virginia town turned deadly when the miners came into conflict with thugs hired by the mining company to evict them from their homes and break the strike. The massacre was a setback in miners’ rights for over a decade, and this powerful film by John Sayles dramatizes the events brilliantly.
“Black Girl” (1966)
Diouana is a young woman in Senegal who begins working as a nanny for a French family. When the family returns to France, she is brought along and assumes she will continue the same job, but quickly finds she is now her employers’ maid. She is trapped by circumstances and geography. Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature is a classic of African filmmaking that confronts colonialism and racism without pulling any punches.
“Mr. Mom” (1983)
There’s a certain innocence in this comedy written by John Hughes, and it serves as dressing for an interesting commentary about marriage roles. Jack loses his job as a factory worker and trades places with his stay-at-home wife who begins working at an advertising agency, because how hard can taking care of the kids and the house actually be? He quickly discovers that childcare and household maintenance is an actual job, and one that he’s not been trained for. Hilarity ensues and, even though it ultimately steers away from a truly feminist story line, it did break the ice for this conversation.
“Cesar Chavez” (2014)
In this biopic directed by actor Diego Luna, César Chávez fights to organize farm workers in California, many of whom are Mexican immigrants, and comes into conflict with the farm owners. While it does come across as more hagiography than actual biography, this is a significant film for bringing Chávez’s life and accomplishments as a labor leader and civil rights activist to a wider audience.
“Norma Rae” (1979)
Inspired by the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, this Oscar-winning drama centers on the efforts by a young single mother (played by Sally Field) to unionize the cotton mill where she works. The film illustrates the many tactics used to divide and conquer workers – including rearranging shifts and using racist techniques to pit white and black workers against each other.
“Nothing but a Man” (1964)
Duff Anderson is a railroad worker in the American South. He marries a local preacher’s daughter and finds a new job working at a mill, but is forced to quit when the foreman perceives he’s trying to unionize the workers. He struggles to keep his dignity and self-respect while searching for another job in the racist small town. The film not only confronts the difficulties facing African American men in the workforce, but slyly addresses how domestic violence is a byproduct of the soul-crushing pressures of discrimination and oppression.
“9 to 5” (1980)
Ranked as one of the most popular American comedies, this was conceived by Jane Fonda as a project to work with Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. The three play office workers who battle sexism by unwittingly bringing their revenge fantasies to life. There is a lot in the film that deserves attention, especially the feminist utopian vision that’s ultimately brought to the workplace once the manipulative boss is out of the picture – equal pay, flexible hours, on-site daycare. It also comments on so many issues women face at work, even today, including unwanted sexual advances and being passed over for advancement despite qualifications.
“Tout Va Bien” (1972)
Jane Fonda also stars in this radical film by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. Ostensibly about an American reporter and her French filmmaking husband chronicling a strike at a sausage factory, the film pays homage to German theatre director Bertolt Brecht through its set design and performances, which enhance its political assault on capitalism and class struggle. Godard wanted to make his film politically, not to make a more typical political film, and used Fonda’s notoriety during the Vietnam War for his own purposes.
“Modern Times” (1936)
In this classic mostly-silent film starring Charlie Chaplin, his ‘Little Tramp’ character finds it hard to adjust to a more modern, industrialized society. He makes a mess of a factory assembly line and gets into even more trouble as he tries to find another job. Chaplin used the medium to blame industrialization in part for harsh conditions of the Great Depression, an idea he discussed with Mahatma Gandhi. This film is also notable as the inspiration for the episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy and Ethel try to keep up with an ever-increasing volume of candy on a conveyor belt.
Books and films are Erik Swallow’s passion, and he especially loves great stories, in either medium, where any of his identities (feminist, queer, anarchist) intersect.
Header Image: Sally Fields in “Norma Rae.”