A working class hero is something to be: 23 proletariat classics

Photo: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (United Artists/Getty Images)

1. Earth (1930)

Inspired by Communist dogma, Soviet filmmakers staged a political and cinematic revolution with silent-era masterpieces like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Strike or Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother. But for sheer visual poetry, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth has no equals. Opening with majestic shots of lush fields swaying in the wind before harvest—cue Woody Allen in Love And Death: “fields of rippling wheat”—and persistently setting its characters against the sheltering sky, the film presages Terrence Malick’s obsession with the relationship between humans and the natural world. Once it settles into the simplest of stories, Earth hails the glories of collectivism by showing a community of Russian peasants rally around the tractor that will bring prosperity and sustenance to all of them. There’s violent resistance from some of the locals, but Dovzhenko’s poetic idealism proves too overwhelming. It takes a village to raise a loaf of bread.

2. Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic offers up a simple model for understanding capitalist class relations. In the dystopian future megalopolis depicted in the film, the wealthy, intellectual elite rule from towers looming high above ground, while the laborers sustaining their decadent society toil underground, shoveling fuel into the gaping maw of a fire-breathing machine/monster. As a narrative about the liberation of a dispirited, literal underclass, Metropolis errs in casting as its hero a liberating upper-cruster rushing to the rescue of the weary workers, largely as an excuse for winning the affections of Brigitte Helm’s virginal heroine. Nonetheless, the film’s elaborate depiction of the basic labor relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie captured the mood of early-20th century Europe, and especially a Weimar Germany adrift between ideals of constitutional democracy and the proceeding tides of fascism.

3. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

It’s been more than 35 years since Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary about a miners’ strike in Kentucky coal country, was first released, but the persistence of cave-ins, health concerns, and deplorable working conditions has kept it in the public conscience. Kopple and her crew arrived in the area in 1972, intending to cover the contentious election of a new union president, but they stumbled onto the site of the one of the bloodiest union-busting operations in American history and discovered that little had changed. As the miners’ strike against the Duke Power Company drags on, Kopple’s cameras are there to catch some hired gun thugs sent to intimidate the workers (and Kopple’s crew) and the tensions that develop within the ranks as the weeks and months drag on. It’s a scenario that would repeat itself during the Hormel strike in Minnesota in Kopple’s excellent 1990 documentary American Dream.

4. Slap Shot (1977)

Being a grossly compensated for running in a championship-winning touchdown doesn’t seem like work in the same way that spot welding or filing TPS reports is a job. But it’s a living. George Roy Hill’s bawdy hockey comedy Slap Shot is more explicit in its commentary on labor. Here, it’s not overpaid pro athletes, but aging amateurs who puts their bodies to brutal, bloody work to entertain unimpressed hometown crowds. Slap Shot connects the fate of the struggling Charlestown Chiefs to that of a local mill whose foreclosure seems imminent. It also works to demystify the system of ownership and management that often clouds working- and middle-class labor relations as the team’s player-coach (Paul Newman) attempts to locate the team’s white-collar owner.

5. Modern Times (1936)

There was always a political edge to Charlie Chaplin and his “Little Tramp” character, who was nothing if not the ragged byproduct of an uncaring society, but Modern Times brought all those discontents to the fore. Chaplin’s critique of the Industrial Age kicks off in a famous opening sequence that finds The Tramp scrambling frantically to turn bolts on a factory assembly line and coming away so frazzled that he chases after a woman with bolt-shaped buttons on her dress. There’s never any indication of what this factory produces, but Modern Times makes a comedy out of its relentless quest for efficiency as well as The Tramp’s accidental instigation of a Communist riot. In perhaps the film’s most savage irony, The Tramp eventually tries to get back in jail, because life on the inside is easier than making an honest living.

6. Salt Of The Earth (1954)

At the height of the Red Scare, three blacklisted artists—director Herbert J. Biberman, writer Michael Wilson, and producer Paul Jarrico—did something truly radical by making Salt Of The Earth, a fervent socialist statement that was produced independently and with the understanding that it would meet condemnation and boycotts. And indeed, that’s exactly what happened: It was officially denounced on Capital Hill, investigated by the FBI for alleged ties to the Kremlin, and shut out of all but 12 theaters across the country. But the film’s political significance has given it a cult following over the years, and while it’s a little stilted and heavy-handed at times, it’s nonetheless a passionate, innovative, and doggedly progressive piece of work. Cast mostly with non-actors, the film throws its support behind the striking workers in Zinc Town, New Mexico, with a special emphasis on the women who picket alongside their husbands in the quest for better working conditions.

7. An Injury To One (2002)

In broad outline, Travis Wilkerson’s hourlong documentary An Injury To One sounds unappetizingly vitamin-enriched: It’s a portrait of Butte, Montana, a mining town reduced to a vast pit of toxic sludge by rapacious, unchecked capitalism. But while the film delivers the expected lefty outrage, it does so via formal methods that are surprisingly, and often thrillingly, unconventional by creating a disorienting middle ground between agitprop and poetry. In lieu of archival footage or talking heads, Wilkerson assembles a collection of stills, maps, quotations, folk-song lyrics, and other ephemera, placing far more emphasis on mood than on presenting facts or building an argument; often, he’ll put seemingly random numbers onscreen, then gradually reveal their significance. Imagine the Flint, Michigan of Roger & Me, except a) far, far worse, and b) as presented by a mournful, non-hectoring disciple of Jean-Luc Godard. Few movies have made such a strong simultaneous case against greedy despoilment and for the beauty of cinema.

8. Norma Rae (1979)

Sally Field finally escaped the long shadow of The Flying Nun with her Academy Award-winning performance in Martin Ritt’s 1979 labor drama Norma Rae, and in a way Field’s journey from Hollywood joke to the Oscar podium shadows that of her Norma Rae character. Here Field plays a textile worker and widowed mother who gets stirred up by outside agitator Ron Leibman and pushes her co-workers to unionize. A lot of stories about unions are about the power of the collective, but Field’s big scene where she silently stands in the middle of the shop floor with a hand-written “UNION” sign is more about Norma herself, demonstrating that while she may be small of stature, under-educated, and have a bad reputation around town, she still has value, and can make a difference.

9. Strike (1925)

Strike was Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, and it was intended as the first part of an ambitious, six-part epic that—like a lot of grand ideas hatched in Lenin’s name—somehow never got completed. Like his next film, Battleship Potemkin, it’s a propaganda film, based on an actual incident from recent, pre-revolutionary history and designed to remind everyone why the Tsar had to go. The workers at a factory—overworked, underpaid, spied on—finally rise up and demand reforms after one of their own is accused of theft and driven to suicide. Their temporary victory proves that there’s strength in numbers. But eventually the bosses squash the rebellion, partly with the help of the “King Of The Bums,” a class traitor who lives in a junk heap and rules over a makeshift community of “unscrupulous men,” but ultimately through the unprincipled use of force and head-cracking violence. Eisenstein uses symbolic animal imagery heavily throughout, and when the powers that be are running amok, beating and executing people, he intercuts the action with scenes of barnyard animals being slaughtered, arguably not the most flattering comparison for anyone involved.

10. Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960)

British New Wave classic Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, starring a young and intense Albert Finney as a factory worker, isn’t solely focused on his life as a machinist in Nottingham. It’s mainly a kitchen-sink drama that charts his affair with a married woman and burgeoning relationship with his new girlfriend. But what drives everything, especially Finney’s self-destructive behavior, is the daily grind of his monotonous job and the fear that he’ll never escape his class status, his town, and what he perceives as the ultimate death sentence: the dull married life of his parents. Finney’s defiance against being pigeonholed is typified by his two most famous lines: “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,” and the constant refrain that pushes him through the drudgery of his job: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!”

11. Kameradschaft (1931)

A couple of years after immortalizing Louise Brooks’ face in Pandora’s Box, G. W. Pabst made this gorgeous, idealistic tribute to sweat, toil, and fellow feeling, inspired by an actual incident in 1906. The setting is a mine divided between the French and German borders, a division that has been carefully observed since the end of World War I. When trouble on the French side leaves the workers there trapped, the Germans, recognizing that their brotherhood as workingmen trumps nationality, literally smash through the borders separating them and save the French. At the end, after this heroic effort and the comradeship that it represents have been duly celebrated, it’s the French officials who are shown quietly re-establishing the official division line, a little irony that, a decade or so later, would become hugely ironic in ways that Pabst never imagined.

12. Matewan (1987)

Even before his movie career, when he was a novelist and short-story writer in his 20s, John Sayles was unusual among young American artists for his class-conscious sense of history. His most ambitious film up to that point, Matewan is an attempt to throw a light on forgotten American history by recreating the events that led to the 1920 Matewan Massacre, a bloody shootout between residents of a West Virginia mining town and “detectives” hired as strike breakers by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. The film, which marks the debuts of both Chris Cooper (as a roving labor organizer who looks as if he’d stepped out of an old Wobblies poster) and the 17-year-old Will Oldham (as a teenage miner whose character serves as narrator), is notable for its depiction of how the bosses deliberately stir up racism among the workers as part of their divide-and-conquer strategy, bringing in a trainload of black replacement workers led by James Earl Jones. Aiming for a historical-documentary feel, Sayles also links his work to earlier tributes to the labor movement: Hazel Dickens, the labor activist and folk singer who appears as herself in Harlan County, U.S.A., plays a local woman who sings at the grave of a fallen worker.

13. The Stars Look Down (1940)

The British film The Stars Look Down, directed by Carol Reed before he became famous for such classics as The Third Man and Odd Man Out, is one of the earliest to feature what’s become one of the most frequent setting for labor disputes in movies—a coal miners’ strike. The hero, played by Michael Redgrave, is a miner’s son who betters himself through education, but who—to the frustration of his shallow, social-climbing wife—is still bound emotionally to the fate of the working class and decides to use his skills and whatever political power he can gain to help the miners in their fight to win a better life. (She cuckolds him with his boyhood friend, whose ambitions only serve himself.) This is one of the few films of the miners-strike genre that concedes that a boss, though money-grubbing and subhuman, might at least have a conscience. When the mine caves in, the owner is so overcome with guilt over his own role in neglecting safety conditions that he dies of a fatal heart attack, just as he’s preparing to launch a rescue effort. This may seem like justice, except that it also dooms the men trapped in the mine, since nobody else knows how to get to them.

14. Working Girls (1986)

The low-budget film Working Girls, from the independent director Lizzie Borden, chronicles a full day inside a terrific-looking, antiseptic piece of Manhattan real estate that serves as a bordello. The dates with the johns are little pieces of theater that only turn awkward when a regular client who’s gotten too attached to a girl—who’s especially good at catering to his fantasies—asks why they can’t see each other “on the outside.” When the girls aren’t in the bedroom, they hang out, shoot the shit, work the phones, and wait for the boss’ next tantrum. The economics of it all is more compelling to the women than their clients’ bodies or what they’re being asked to do with them, and when the heroine (Louise Smith) announces at the end that she’s fed up and won’t be coming back, she’s reacting against the fact that the madam has pressured her into taking extra shifts and doesn’t pay her a fair wage—that, more than what she’s doing for the money, makes her feel degraded. (It’s also anyone’s guess whether or not she really will be coming back.) This dispassionate, painstakingly unsexy film was an early success for Miramax Films, thanks in part to a sexy poster showing Smith smiling enticingly at potential ticket buyers.

15. On The Waterfront (1954)

On The Waterfront is widely regarded as director Elia Kazan’s mea culpa for fingering alleged communist sympathizers in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. It may be a case of too little, too late, but subtracting Kazan’s reputation as being the number one name in naming names still reveals a film steeped in genuine sympathy for its cast of working-class stevedores. In this Method-acting classic, burly Marlon Brando plays a dockworker torn between his conscience and the dockworkers’ edict of playing “D and D” (that’s “deaf and dumb”) when it comes to all the racketeering, exploitation, and murder ordered by Lee J. Cobb’s corrupt union boss. While it may be a bit difficult to stomach coming from the turncoat Kazan, Waterfront’s message of workplace (and community) solidarity rings true in spite of its director’s eagerness to redeem himself.

16. Blue Collar (1978)

Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, Blue Collar, casts Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor as Detroit autoworkers who hatch a coked-up scheme to rip off their union. Beyond being an inventive caper, Blue Collar looks at the friction between the sense of fraternity that defines the spirit of labor unions and the all-American ideals of self-interest, determination, and covering your own ass. Schrader sees unions, or at least this union, as just another layer designed to keep workers complacent: In one scene, a dispute between Pryor and his foreman is resolved with the gifting of a bottle of Cutty Sark. Where a film like Norma Rae analyzes the problems of non-union labor in America, Blue Collar questions the various manipulations that turn organized workers against each other. As Kotto’s character puts it, “They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white—everybody—to keep us in our place.” Blue Collar is as much an indictment of the inherent corruption of any system of power as a complex look at the lives of its cash-strapped line workers, one that doesn’t fall into the trap of rosily romanticizing class struggle.

17. Workingman’s Death (2005)

The title says it all: Workingman’s Death—the second in a “globalization” trilogy from Michael Glawogger that includes 1998’s Megacities and 2011’s superb triptych about prostitution, Whores’ Glory—travels to five of the most dangerous work sites on Earth and finds desperate men endangering their lives for exceedingly modest pay. The sites include a ship-breaking yard in Pakistan, an open-air market in Nigeria where butchers slaughter their wares, and a Ukrainian mining system with a brazen lack of safety standards. Glawogger is far from an indifferent, point-and-shoot documentarian: Workingman’s Death has a compositional beauty that’s rare for the format, but its formal sheen only heightens the miseries of the people in front of the camera.

18. Tout Va Bien (1972)

A collaboration between Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, Tout Va Bien marks the culmination of the two filmmakers’ collaborative attempt to, as Godard put it, “make films politically” (as opposed to just making political films). Though it’s four years after the unrest of May 1968, the advances (and general tumult) of the period hang heavily over the film. Tout Va Bien stars Jane Fonda (at the peak of her widely publicized political radicalism) and Yves Montand as a couple investigating a wildcat strike at a sausage factory where the workers are holding their buffoonish manager (Vittorio Caprioli) hostage. Holed up over the course of a day, Fonda interviews and begins to sympathize with the striking workers, one of whom promises not to eat her and Montand—a callback to the cannibalistic hippie revolutionaries marching through the last scenes of Godard’s Weekend. Many of the factory scenes are shot on an open set resembling a cross-section diorama, laying bare the operations of the sausage plant. Characters express their political positions by directly addressing the camera, petitioning for the viewer’s attention and empathy. Godard and Gorin leave the factory strike unresolved, but it has a noticeable political effect on Fonda and Montand’s petit-bourgeois couple, fundamentally rewiring their own domestic relationship.

19. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

Celebrations of labor rarely pause to acknowledge the kind that isn’t paid by the hour, but Chantal Akerman’s landmark film treats the work her titular protagonist does in the kitchen with as much dignity and seriousness as any assembly-line love letter. Using her aunt, whom she’d watched with rapt fascination as a child, for a model, Akerman taught lead actress Delphine Seyrig how to perform the tasks of a housewife with the offhand precision that comes from a lifetime of practice—in spite of the fact that the aristocratic Seyrig had never peeled a potato in her life. Jeanne Dielman presents those tasks in near-real time (or at least a carefully choreographed simulation thereof), at a length that goes through drudgery to a kind of hypnotic fascination. When her actions start to veer off-course, a sense of palpable shock goes through the viewer’s body, prefiguring the movie’s shocking and yet inevitable conclusion.

20. Swing Shift (1984)

Although he’s long since strayed from his proletarian beginnings, Jonathan Demme first made his mark as an affectionate, empathetic chronicler of blue-collar America. Demme’s devotion to characters like Melvin And Howard’s Melvin Dummar, a hapless working stiff who gives a lift to an errant Howard Hughes, hit its endpoint with 1984’s Swing Shift, which paid tribute to the women who took over factory jobs when their husbands and brothers were sent to fight World War II. Unfortunately, budding star Goldie Hawn had rather different aims for the film, which was re-cut after being taken out of the director’s hands. (During the filming of Philadelphia, Demme popped into a local video store and left a hand-scrawled note on Swing Shift’s video box, amiably explaining that a better version existed.) Even so, the film remains a fond if compromised portrayal of an aspect of the war effort that history books often neglect.

21. The Company (2003)

Robert Altman was sometimes dismissed as a misanthrope who made movies about disconnected loonies off in their own self-absorbed worlds; but throughout his career he was drawn to the idea of people working together to create something, be it a town in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, music in Nashville, or ballet in one of Altman’s last films, The Company. So subtle that it’s practically plotless, The Company surveys Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet from its visionaries and accountants down to its dancers, who work until they bleed or break, always knowing that they can be replaced. Altman admires the outcome, but he doesn’t romanticize the process: Everybody’s a cog in a bigger machine.

22. North Country (2005)

Not all workingmen are inherently noble, especially when they’re part of an institutionalized culture that wittingly and unwittingly subjugates a portion of its workforce: the workingwoman. The 2005 drama North Country tells the dramatized story of the United States’ first sexual-harassment case, casting an un-glammed Charlize Theron as a newly single mother who goes to work in the harsh conditions of a Minnesota iron mine, and winds up facing worse conditions above ground than she does below at the hands of her ragingly sexist, verbally abusive male co-workers and superiors (and to an extent, her blind-eye-turning female co-workers). Things get worse when she brings a lawsuit against the company, insisting that she just wants to be able to work. In the end, Theron’s controversial victory ensures she doesn’t have to work at the mine anymore (not that she’d want to), but it also ensures that subsequent generations of female miners will be able do so without sacrificing their own well-being.

23. The Son (2002)

Contemporary cinema’s greatest poets of working-class life, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne never fail to pay close attention to their characters’ various métiers. That’s especially true of The Son, where Olivier Gourmet’s carpentry business furnishes a bond between him and a young apprentice, wordlessly suggesting the more profound connection the film later reveals. Given the Dardennes’ Christian faith, Gourmet’s profession also links him to history’s most famous woodworker, whose forgiveness he struggles to emulate.

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