Labor On Film: Screenings In Solidarity


By Michael Jones

For May Day, the international holiday commemorating the working class everywhere, or America’s Labor Day, a rough chronological selection of films in the workers’ honor. This list is composed of fiction and nonfiction films, domestic and international and is an initial offering, by no means complete. Labor and the film industry have a long history—mostly off-celluloid–there were violent battles outside Hollywood’s studio gates in the 1940s. Still today, Hollywood and the film industry world-wide remain one of the most unionized of industries.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Loading the Boiler, Drawing out the Coke, Demolishing a WallLumiere Bros., c. 1895-96, Fr.
The earliest documentaries in existence—actualities, performed by working people—one shot, one reel, no edits. The subject is the everyday—and in these instances workers’ doing what they do everyday. The filmmakers’ father owned the factory in the title, but we’re barred from its interior.

Available on DVD.

A Visit to the Peek Frean and Company’s Biscuit Works – c. 1906, GB
Supposedly the first documentary ever filmed inside a factory, workers turning out tins and tins of cookies!

Available on DVD.

Corner in WheatD.W. Griffith, 1909, US
Roughly based on the bread riots of the turn of the century, a striking expose of corporate manipulation at the expense of the consumer and the producer/farmer. Fortunately, karma intervenes.

Available on DVD.

StrikeSergei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR
Just a year ahead of his groundbreaking Battleship Potemkin, a chronicle of a proletarian strike violently squashed by the factory owners, the police and the Tsar’s own agents. Noted for the metaphoric slaying of an ox, before the massacre of the strikers.

Available on Blu-ray and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.


MetropolisFritz Lang, 1926, Ger.
More than a sci-fi, this a treatise on the eternal struggle between capital and labor. Once seen, the viewer never forgets the worker drones headed, head down, to work in the fiery underground of Lang’s futuristic nightmare. Happily, love and a growing social awareness intervene.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 colorized re-edit is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Liberty is Ours (A Nous la Liberte)Rene Clair, 1931, Fr.
Clair’s charming Cinderella story – an escaped con becomes a factory mogul – bursts when a cellmate, in line for employment, recognizes him. Later, on the lam, the factory is left behind to the workers’ collective, living an idyllic existence on the fringe of nature and technology.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Our Daily BreadKing Vidor, 1934, US
Despite his studio credentials, Vidor (The Crowd) couldn’t get this one made in the depths of the Depression, so he did it out of pocket. A utopian view of a farming collective, composed of diverse specialists, that finds a way to employ themselves. The final ten minutes is an euphoric montage, almost religious in tone, as the struggling farmers triumphantly divert water to their crops.

Available on DVD.


Modern TimesCharles Chaplin, 1936, US
With this release, there were no more ambiguities about Chaplin’s cinema – his political heart was there on the silver screen for all. He’d met Ghandi on tour in England, and he’d resolved to try to say something among the laughs. Countless memorable sequences with The Tramp run amok in the Industrial Age.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.


You Can’t Take It With YouFrank Capra, 1938, US
Capra finds a comfortable vehicle in the Moss HartGeorge S. Kaufman play, with memorable roles by Lionel Barrymore, as the downright practically anti-American patriarch who rejects a 9-5 lifestyle and encourages the same from his resident pack of anarchistic, firework-producing in-laws, and Jean Arthur, hoping to bridge the social strata by marriage to her corporate boss’s son, Jimmy Stewart. Capra was America’s most popular populist director of the 1930’s — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc. — and this reminds us why. A personal favorite as we put the play on in high school—part of my political education!

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

John Grierson and the GPO documentaries, c. 1930s, UK
As a government funded agency whose mission it was to produce documentaries on various aspects of British life, (re: working life) Grierson, Basil Wright and associates produced scores of films including Nightmail, a study in efficiency and teamwork of postal employees carrying mail nightly from London to Glasgow, with rhetorical voice-over poetry from W. H. Auden. A fascinating piece of government propaganda.

Nightmail is available on the Region B Blu-ray/DVD combo pack The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Nightmail.

Henry Fonda the Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Ford, 1940, US
Well of course the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel is omitted—it could never have worked then, or maybe even now—but it still splits some hairs and lands pretty solidly (albeit sentimentally) on the Left. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad realizes the balance of things and sets out to right them, in fact his speech to Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) near the end even hints at a universal consciousness. Imagine that. Perhaps most memorable is John Carradine as Casey, who dropped his Bible on the way to social enlightenment. Steinbeck in his early works was quite critical of capitalism, and though he may have mellowed in latter years, he was reportedly very happy with Ford’s version.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Salt of the EarthHerbert Biberman, 1954, US
Collectively produced by a blacklisted Hollywood crew, the film was harassed from the beginning by right-wingers in Congress and Hollywood – in fact, processing and editing had to be done secretly, and then only two theaters screened it. Based on a real miners’ strike, this film breaks ground as domestic issues compound and the wives carry the strike through to a new contract. With Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, as the Sheriff pawn of the corporation. Yes, Grandpa was a Communist. A feel good movie from the Left!

Available on DVD.

Vidas Secas (Barren Lives)Nelson Periera dos Santos, 1963, Brazil
One of the bed-rock films of Brazilian’s Cinema Novo movement, this is a no-holds barred tale of an illiterate migrant gaucho and family drifting from ranch to ranch, exploited by landowner and law. As stark and as bleak as its landscape, the film holds however the the nurturing hopes and seeds of a better life, ending with a thin note of optimism—like much of the Italian Neo-realist films which influenced the young Brazilians.

Available on DVD.

They Don’t Wear Black TieLeon Hirszman, 1981, Brazil
I’ve only seen this movie twice but the emotional rift between a striking factory-worker father and his scab son resonated. Set in a small village (location shot with a sweaty gritty texture) where the town’s existence revolves around the factory, Hirszman’s rhetoric plays naturally as he builds characters into people. At one time it was distributed by New Yorker Films.

Available as part of a five film all-region DVD box set.


Harlan County, U.S.A.Barbara Kopple, 1977, US
One of the greatest American documentaries period, a record of not only a specific strike in Kentucky in the early ‘70s, but the history and legacy of the United Mine Workers. Like Salt of the Earth the women take the lead with questions regarding indoor plumbing and decent housing overlapping with the strikers on issues regarding safety. Academy Award Winner in 1978 for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.


Norma RaeMartin Ritt, 1979, US
America’s favorite gal, Sally Field, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae, who risks marriage, family and community opinion as she fights for workers’ rights in a North Carolina textile factory. Ron Liebman plays the union organizer with whom she has a platonic relationship – an education on labor issues and a skinny dip in the local swimming hole. Nicely handled by director Ritt, who sells the story on a personal level that makes the union’s fight believable, vital, and winnable. Based on a true story.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.


MatewanJohn Sayles, 1983, US
One of writer-director Sayles best films (Return of the Secaucus 7, Eight Men Out) and only his third, a dramatic version of a bloody coal-mining strike in Matewan, KY. Like most of Sayles films, there’s an eye for natural dialogue and behavior, and a penchant for stories that invite a social discourse.

Available on DVD.


Working GirlsLizzie Borden, 1987, US
Her followup to Born in Flames, Borden’s unglamorous expose of a middle-upper class brothel in NYC garnered an X rating for Miramax, who released it. The debunking comes through humanization of the players and like Godard’s My Life to Live (’63), prostitution is still the hardest working metaphor for capitalism in cinema.

Available on DVD.

American DreamBarbara Kopple, 1990, US
A prolonged strike against a Hormel meat packing plant is the dramatic stuff of this documentary – family members pitted against one another and a national representation unable to avert disaster for the local. A little technical at times, but a real education in what happens backroom in labor negotiations. Oscar winner for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Roger & Me

Roger and Me/The Big OneMichael Moore, 1989/1998
A champion of topics ignored by major media, Moore manages to focus not only on an issue film-to-film, but also connects the dots in the bigger workers’ picture. Beginning with the UAW in Flint in the 1930s in Roger & Me, to his interview with the CEO and founder of Nike who declines to match Moore’s own pledge to the depressed school districts of Flint with a $20,000 donation in the latter film.

Roger & Me is available on DVD.

The Big One is available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Michael Jones has worked a lot of low-paying jobs—packing apples, digging graves, painting houses–including ushering at the revered, defunct Biograph Theatre, of Richmond, VA where he made $2.25/hr. in 1976. He currently teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University and Randolph-Macon College, and is a founding member of the James River Film Festival and the James River Film Society.

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3 Responses to Labor On Film: Screenings In Solidarity

  1. Caryl Burtner says:

    Thanks, Mike ~ Happy May Day! Caryl

  2. Ted Salins says:

    Typical Commie rantings from a socialist film expert (but well written and a fitting tribute to great films and especially to workers – the people who make your life better). My film hiostory students always applaud at the end of “A CORNER IN WHEAT”.

  3. Ted Salins says:

    ‘history”, not “hiostory”

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