Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 3, 2012

Labor Films 101 – a work in progress

What do we want? “Justice!” When do we want it? “When they get around to it… no, wait… how about NOW?! Yeah, NOW. That’s better. We want it now… but we’re tired of having to shout about it. Can we act like grownups now?”

Possible starting point for a class on labor issues, unions and their portrayal the movies:

Salt of the Earth  (1954) – the only blacklisted American-made film during the dark days of the McCarthy era… and a genuine feminist/pro-labor high water mark for U.S. cinema prior to the 1970s. Mexican-American villagers/zinc mine workers in New Mexico clash with the powers that be, refusing to be ignored (the main dramatic tension in every union film).

Harlan County U.S.A. – Barbara Koppel’s Oscar-winning 1976 masterpiece about striking coal miners. Like most films here, you might need to go to a library or Netflix to find it, but it’s worth the extra effort. This cinema verite documentary set the standard for fly-on-the-wall, non-objective social issue documentaries with an opinion for years afterward. No Ken Burns or Britannica Films style voice-of-God narrators. No old photographs, or talking heads here. Just grimy coal miners and their courageous families, including their most private moments. Gutsy people up against some genuinely evil union busters, ready to bust some heads (including that of the cameraman, a chilling moment).

The Last Pullman Car  (1983)- by Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal of Kartemquin Films, producers of “Hoop Dreams”. Principal partners one of the premiere documentary companies in America, and my first employers when I was fresh out of college (and probably pretty clueless overall). They also did a two-part series on unionization struggles at the Taylor Chain factory, but Last Pullman Car was the film that struck a more significant historical note, about the end of a major American institution, the Pullman train dining car.

Hoffa – David Mamet brings his unique style and flair for dialog to the story of one of the most controversial national labor leaders ever, Jimmy Hoffa. I’m pretty sure this was Danny DeVito’s first directing or producing effort, too. A hit-and-miss film in terms of acting and storytelling, but still some powerful moments, …and with Jack Nicholson in it, how wrong can you go?

Sometimes a Great Notion – a 1971 lumberjack movie with Paul Newman, based on a novel by Ken “Cuckoo’s Nest” Kesey. As I recall, the strike is not a central plot element, but it’s a quirky, pretty cool movie anyway.

The Corporation –  a documentary lesson in what happens when labor issues are swept under the rug? Somebody’s gotta talk about it… our politicians are too busy shaking corporate hands and dodging the ridiculous “socialist” label whenever anyone talks about setting community-minded limits.

Norma Rae – Sally Field on a table, holding up a “STRIKE” sign. Cue dramatic music. Say no more… I’m there. And then there was that Oscar speech: “Wow. You like me! You really like me!” Cute never looked so tough before, and probably has not since, either.

Matewan – a lost gem about a coal strike in Appalachia. One of John Sayles’ early films. Sayles is one of the most consistently honest and effective screenwriters in America, and one of my personal favorites.

North Country – Charlize Theron, showing some range and getting away from the glamor roles. More coal miners, as I recall… doesn’t Hollywood know that other industries are unionized, too?

Roger & Me – what can I say? It’s the film that put Michael Moore on the map. Love him, hate him, I don’t care. He changed the public discourse permanently, and put documentary features back in play as something relevant, not just the stuff of PBS and academia.


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