Last year, Movie Mondays honored the day with a post about workplace comedies. This year, let’s take a look at six serious films – three dramas, three documentaries – that look at the plight of laborers and the working class in the face of corporate excess.
These inspirational biopics, based on real events, illustrate the power that one person can make a difference. Actor and first-time director Diego Luna brought Cesar Chavez to the screen in 2014. Michael Peña stars as the civil rights icon who fought for the rights of migrant farm workers using nonviolent means and helped launch the modern labor rights movement in the United States. In Silkwood (1983), Meryl Streep plays Karen Silkwood, who becomes contaminated with plutonium at her workplace and sets out to expose the company’s knowledge and neglect. Kurt Russell and Cher (in a Golden-Globe winning performance) co-star in this riveting drama. And Sally Field won an Oscar for the lead role in Norma Rae (1979), as a minimum-wage worker at a cotton mill whose fight for better wages and working conditions leads to an attempt to unionize the workers, opposed both by the management and by Norma’s husband Sonny (Beau Bridges).
More infuriating than inspirational, these three documentaries are still worth watching and are essential viewing in understanding the struggle that workers endure in the U.S. and beyond. In The Take (2004), director Avi Lewis and writer Naomi Klein tackle a complex series of events in Argentina after the privatization of public companies led to the country’s economic collapse, and how it plays out at an auto plant where the workers refuse to leave after the government shuts it down. Michael Moore burst onto the scene with his first documentary, the iconic Roger & Me (1989). Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, suffers enormously after General Motors shuts down a plant there, and their apparent indifference to the negative impact it had on the town sends him on a colorful journey to confront General Motors CEO Roger Smith. And in Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), filmmaker Barbara Kopple presents an eye-opening examination of a year-long, violent strike by Kentucky coal workers after the Eastover Mining Company refuses to sign a contract to allow the workers to join a union. This seminal documentary earned both an Oscar and a place on the National Film Registry.