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Science And Nature

21 of the Best Movies About Capitalism and American Labor

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In a country that’s no less hostile to workers than it has ever been, it’s surprising that we have a holiday dedicated to the achievements of the labor movement and trade unions. (Though it’s highly debated whether Labor Day is really a holiday for the working class.) Many movies do a pretty damn good job at laying out the conflicts borne of capitalism, speaking to themes in American labor. Interestingly enough, some of the most significant and popular films centered around labor (Norma Rae, Silkwood, Bread and Roses, Matewan, and more) are entirely unavailable for streaming. Do with that what you will.

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Harlan County, USA (1976)

Harlan County, USA (1976)

About: Mine work and strike-busting in the deep south.

We talk a lot about the “white working-class” in terms of elections, but that’s most typically just a means to set white and Black voters against each other. Here, Barbara Kopple explodes all of our myths about the things that might concern a mineworker (predominantly, but not exclusively white) in the deep south.

Filmed as it was happening, the film documents what became known as the “Brookside Strike” against the owners of the Brookside Mine and Prep Plant in Harlan County, Kentucky. Kopple’s original intent was to create a film about efforts to unseat the wildly corrupt leader of the United Mine Workers of America union at the time, W.A. Boyle, who seemed to many to be in the pockets of the mine owners (he was later convicted of conspiracy in the murders of a reformist opponent’s entire family). That explosive story, though, turned out to be a side-note of the brutal, bloody, violent opposition faced by the striking mine-workers and their families.

These mine-workers, though, were no pushovers when it came to their rights and mine safety; nor were their wives and mothers. Modern politicians would be quick to call them socialists, but I doubt they’d do it within striking distance of their fierce opposition.

9 to 5 (1980)

About: Women in the white-collar workforce.

There are themes here that resonate with anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate office, but this movie is specifically about women in the working world. Back in 1980, Women were just beginning to make progress in gaining leadership positions. Forty years later, there’s been less progress than you might expect.

Despite being a majority of the workforce and being generally overeducated compared to their male counterparts, women continue to lag behind. There are a few different ways to crunch the numbers, but the number of Fortune 500 companies without male CEOs is somewhere around 8%, which is an all-time high.

Here, the struggle of competent women in the workforce is illustrated in a wild, fantasy farce: Three workers (Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin) at Consolidated Companies are all struggling to earn the respect that’s easily attained by their male co-workers, when one believes that she’s accidentally poisoned the boss, a sexist, egotistical, hypocritical bigot played by Dabney Coleman. Hiding him away to cover up the crime, the three wind up taking over the company and running things as though they’re just relaying orders. The movie also deals with the ways women are often set against each other by male bosses. Parton’s related theme album, 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, includes several protest songs related to the history of the labor movement.

Where to stream: HBO Max

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How Green Was My Valley (1941)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

About: Mine labor.

Though set in a fictional Welsh village, John Ford’s Oscar winner deals with the real history of coal mining in the Rhondda Valley area of South Wales, a region that was the primary source of fuel of the British Navy for generations. As demand for the local dry steam coal grew in the 19th century, working conditions worsened and a region’s valuable natural resource became a cause for exploitation of local workers. It’s estimated that, region-wide, the mines saw a death about every six hours.

The multi-generational story of a hard-working mining family, How Green Was My Valley was a blockbuster novel about the struggles of workers against the large mine owners demanding more for less, culminating in a massive strike. The truncated (but gorgeous) Hollywood version plays up the sentimental aspects of the book and plays down the labor angle, but doesn’t do away with it entirely. The movie speaks to the labor troubles of miners then and now, but also to that of Hollywood in the 20th century.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Nothing But a Man (1964)

About: Class and racial struggle among railroad workers.

Nothing But a Man lives at the intersection of racism and classism, and is an acclaimed film that featured an almost entirely Black cast in an era when that was a sure-fire way to get your film ignored by distributors.

Ivan Dixon stars as Duff Anderson, a Black railroad worker who forms a relationship with a school teacher (and prominent preacher’s daughter) while on a work assignment in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. His co-workers discourage the relationship because of the wide gap between their social classes, as does the young woman’s father. At first seen as one of the “good ones” by his white employers for his steadfast and competent work, Duff’s insistence on maintaining a base level of dignity soon sees him branded a troublemaker. Already limited job opportunities become more scarce, and the chances to form a stable family become further limited.

It’s very much a story about the struggles of Black Americans in the labor market, but the problem of balancing financial necessity with basic human dignity is one that unites anyone everyone.

Where to stream: Flix Fling

Trash Dance (2012)

About: The beauty of sanitation work.

One of the biggest struggles faced by American workers is a lack of respect for many forms of labor. We certainly don’t afford much respect to waste collectors. Trash Dance, in its own way, is a rather glorious celebration of the skills and personalities of the sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1624 in Texas, as filmmaker and choreographer Allison Orr organizes a massive garbage-truck dance performance, finding the beauty in trash and in the workers who help to keep our world sanitary.

Where to stream: The Roku Channel, Tubi, Vudu, Pluto, Plex

The Pajama Game (1957)

About: Women and labor organizing in the textile industry.

You might not think of Doris Day as a labor agitator…and you probably still won’t after The Pajama Game. The icon, though, plays union leader Babe Williams, organizing for raises for her fellow employees in a Cedar Rapids pajama factory. The real trouble comes when the factory superintendent falls for her, and vice versa, complicating her efforts and his, as well.

At the risk of spoiling things: Babe comes out on top and uncovers corruption among management. Hers is probably not a means of labor organizing that’s easy to replicate outside of a musical, but it’s a fun movie that gives a friendly nod to the idea that factory workers, especially ones talented enough to sing on the job, deserve to be paid what they’re worth.

Where to stream: Prime Video, Tubi

Newsies (1992)

About: A newsboy strike that crosses turfs.

Union-hating Walt Disney must’ve rolled over in his grave when his company produced Newsies, a movie based on the NYC Newsboys’ Strike of 1899, a wildly improbable moment in the history of American labor organizing.

The newsies were at the center of paper distribution of the era, and boroughs and street corners were fought over in turf wars. Somehow, the poor and largely uneducated newsboys from all over the city and from various ethnic backgrounds came together for a two-week (frequently violent) strike against the papers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Circulation of the major papers was more than halved, and the owners finally caved to the major demands of the newsboys. Both the original movie and a filmed version of the (pretty great) stage musical version are available for streaming on Disney.

Where to stream: Disney+

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Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

About: Class division among telemarketers.

Boots Riley’s satire stars LaKeith Stanfield as a Black telemarketer who realizes, at first to his horror, that he can increase his sales dramatically by adopting a white-sounding accent. From there, a common theme develops: promoted and rewarded for his sales prowess, he’s encouraged to turn his back on his former peers. Even as he moves up the line and discovers some of the company’s darkest secrets, he’s still understandably reluctant to give up his new standard of living. Positioned as a strikebreaker when his old friends try to build a union, he’s forced to finally choose.

Where to stream: Netflix, Hulu

Matewan (1987)

About: A full-scale battle for miners’ rights.

The history of American labor is littered with stories of private armies hired to break strikes and intimidate laborers—it’s how the Pinkertons made their names. Director John Sayles’ Matewan dramatizes the true story of what became known as the Battle of Matewan in West Virginia coal country in 1920; part of a series of ignored conflicts between miners and bosses that ran for about a decade.

It’s a reminder of the bloody lengths to which mine owners, in particular, have gone to keep wages low and safety provisions few. It doesn’t shy away from a darker, unavoidable theme in American labor history: the ways in which racism has been employed by white laborers and owners to advance their own causes. The film begins with a bloody attack on Black miners brought in to cross a picket line.

Where to stream: Currently, nowhere. There is, though, a Criterion Blu-ray; it occasionally shows up on that streaming service.

Modern Times (1936)

About: Soul-crushing automation.

The paradox of automation has always been that “labor-saving” innovations almost never benefit those doing the actual labor. That’s perhaps most disturbingly illustrated by the cotton gin, an advancement that saw conditions worsen dramatically for enslaved Americans of the 19th century.

Here, Charlie Chaplin, a star whose sympathies with the labor movement would eventually get him kicked out of the country, plays his Little Tramp character in a satiric dark comedy that imagines mechanization as a phantasmagoria. Memorable clips don’t capture the movie’s wild swings: a Communist demonstration, a cocaine-fueled jailbreak, bricks thrown at police strike-breakers, and more. By the end, Chaplin makes clear that the “modern” factory is a nightmare for its workers.

Where to stream: HBO Max, The Criterion Channel, Kanopy

Roger & Me (1989)

About: Autoworkers looking for answers.

Michael Moore’s reputation as a provocateur has waned quite a bit over the years, but Roger & Me remains his opus and an important moment in American labor history. Specifically, it represents one of those rare occasions when someone is able to cut through multi-billion dollar corporate messaging to point out how cruel and ridiculous they can be. Here, it was General Motors and Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan.

The filmmaker interviews locals and plant workers, and seeks to get in touch with GM chairman Roger B. Smith after a number of employees express disdain for the company’s leader. There were criticisms at the time, and questions have remained as to whether all of Moore’s tactics here were entirely above board, but the point remains: with the stroke of a pen, a company was willing to all but destroy a community just to save a few dollars.

This was the first feature documentary in American history to have received a broad theatrical release, and dozens of filmmakers boycotted the Oscars over the Academy’s failure to nominate it in the documentary category.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Support the Girls (2018)

About: Restaurant workers uniting.

Mumblecore master Andrew Bujalski wrote and directed this impressively loud movie about a group of women who work at a fictional restaurant that is definitely not Hooters (here it’s called “Double Whammies”). Regina Hall leads the movie as Lisa Conroy, the general manager who’s become accustomed to walking the line between the restaurant’s staff, of whom she’s fiercely protective, and the boss that’s always threatening to fire her. As conditions worsen, a camaraderie develops between the women workers that’s inspiring, even if the movie doesn’t offer any easy solutions.

Where to stream: Prime Video, Tubi, Kanopy, Redbox, Pluto, Plex

The Killing Floor (1984)

About: Early attempts at a multi-racial meatpackers’ union.

Bill Duke directed this movie that started as a PBS TV movie before moving on to the broader festival circuit. It’s set among the meatpackers of Chicago in the lead up to the devastating white supremacist violence of 1919. In the film, two Black sharecroppers come to the city seeking jobs in the stockyards vacated by white soldiers who’d left for World War I. Frank Custer (Damien Leake) is encouraged by his co-workers to join the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of North America Union, which sets him at odds with various and overlapping interests based in race, ethnicity, and class.

The movie dramatizes the struggle to gain recognition for the idea that workers of different backgrounds have more in common with each other than they do with the capital class.

Where to stream: The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Film Movement Plus

Norma Rae (1979)

About: One woman brings a textile plant to a halt.

Sally Field (who won an Oscar) plays the title’s Norma Rae Webster, based on the real-life union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton. A factory worker in North Carolina is fired for running off a union sign on the company printer, leading to the climactic, indelible moment when she brings the factory to a complete standstill. That’s the scene everyone knows, but Field’s performance here is fabulous in a story that’s about the power that an ordinary person can have when they’ve had enough.

Where to stream: Believe it or not…nowhere.

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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

About: Capitalism crushes real-estate salesmen.

An impressive and dark exploration of American-style capitalism, writer David Mamet’s film visits a corporate real estate office populated by an all-star cast (Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and more.). To motivate the salesmen, they’re informed that only the very top closers among them will get to keep their jobs at the week’s end. It doesn’t matter how they convince their marks to buy into real estate, and it certainly doesn’t matter if they can afford it. Friendships and peer relationships are seen as less than worthless.

With vicious precision, the movie illustrates the ways in which capitalism forces workers to not only turn on each other, but to fleece customers to make money for whoever’s sitting at the top.

Where to stream: Kanopy, Pluto, Shout TV

Outland (1981)

About: Exploited miners on the moon.

Sean Connery stars in this space western about mines on the moon (a moon of Jupiter, to be precise). He plays a federal marshal assigned to maintain order and, incidentally, help to quell any labor disputes. An increasing number of disturbances lead Connery to look more deeply into conditions in the mines and the means that are being used to keep workers working. As a slightly goofy science fiction movie, it takes itself seriously and displays a fair bit of passion for its central themes involving the exploitation of workers.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Cesar Chavez (2014)

About: Agricultural labor and the birth of the UFW.

One of the most significant figures in American labor history (and, by extension, American history), Cesar Chavez (played here by Michael Peña) gets only cursory mentions in American history textbooks. Director Diego Luna’s biopic follows Chavez’s efforts to organize California farmworkers, many of them temporary workers from Mexico, over a period of decades, and eventually helping to found the United Farm Workers union. The movie falls back on too many of the tropes of the biopic genre to fully connect, but it does serve as an occasionally rousing introduction to an American who deserves to be much better known and understood.

Where to stream: Starz

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The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

About: Department store employees organize.

Wealthy tycoon John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) goes undercover (sound familiar?) at one of his New York City department stores to root out labor agitators, barely passing the basic skills test required of the most entry-level workers. He meets his match in store clerk Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) who, along with her recently fired boyfriend, are among those in the store fighting on the DL for better conditions, and planning an upcoming strike. It’s mostly a charming romp with some impressively pro-labor sentiments, even if it ends on a somewhat compromised note.

Where to stream: The Roku Channel, Plex, Flix Fling

Salt of the Earth (1954)

About: Mexican-American women taking the lead in a mining strike.

Based on the real-life 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico, Salt of the Earth was blacklisted even before it was released, being the product of multiple filmmakers who’d been shunned during the Communist hunts of the era. If that hadn’t been enough, its themes would almost have certainly have kept it off of screens: starring a blend of professional actors and New Mexico locals, Salt of the Earth focuses on the Mexican-American mine workers striking for conditions equal to those of their white counterparts. More than that, the film’s lead is Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas), the wife of a mine worker who takes up a picket sign in his place.

That a pro-union movie about the women in the families of Mexican-American ever got made by Hollywood filmmakers remains remarkable. It’s more than just a curiosity, though. The film was immediately critically acclaimed, even if not widely viewed.

Where to stream: Paramount+, Epix, Tubi, Kanopy, Pluto, Plex, Flix

Live Nudie Girls Unite!

About: Sex workers of the world unite.

Sex work is work, but that doesn’t mean that workers in the industry don’t face unique challenges in fighting for wages or improved conditions. In the late 1990s, the staff at the Lusty Lady, a San Francisco peep show, were faced with arbitrary wage policies, racism, and lacked even the most basic job perks while dealing with problem customers without management support. When the staff threatened a strike, management wouldn’t even concede that what the women did could be considered a real job; as though it was something done for fun with the bonus of a few tips. So they got organized, resulting in a truly groundbreaking moment in labor history, even if sex workers still struggle for recognition. Filmmaker Julia Query worked at the club and brings a sharp insider’s perspective to the story.

Where to stream: Paramount+, Epix, Tubi, Kanopy, Pluto, Plex, Flix

Parasite (2019)

About: Domestic workers strike back.

It’s worth including a South Korean black comedy in this list of movies about American labor: Korean filmmakers, including Bong Joon-ho, are practiced in making movies that criticize capitalism, and the best of them are far better than American filmmakers at doing it. Suffice it to say that the story of a poor family who scheme to infiltrate the household of a gullible wealthy family is as impressive a critique of late-stage capitalism (and the ways in which it demands that we eat each other alive) as you’re likely to find.

Where to stream: Hulu, Kanopy

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