At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
In this month’s retrospective, we celebrate Labor Day in the United States by taking a look at some of the best films about the working class. Be they farmers, factory workers, or underpaid office grunts, we dive into the movies that celebrate the grueling, unforgiving work that people put in every day just to get by.
Modern Times (1936)
By Matt Schlee
Charlie Chaplin‘s famous Tramp character is one of the earliest and most recognizable icons of the economically distressed in American. Though The Tramp is a hilarious character whose ineptitude and ability to inexplicably find himself in outrageous situations is played for laughs, Chaplin’s comedic films often worked to send a social message. People think of The Great Dictator as Chaplin’s political film, but four years earlier, Modern Times sent a resounding message about the abuse of factory workers.
The early parts of the film display the commodification of the working class in America as The Tramp is used as a test dummy on a dangerous new product, continues to adjust nuts and bolts even as he is sucked into the machinery that keeps the factory running, begins to see cracks in his own sanity as a result of his repetitive job, and even finds himself leading a massive protest which is broken up by the police. Modern Times is without a doubt one of Chaplin’s funniest films, but that does not take away from the important message being sent here. It is a harsh advocacy piece for the fair treatment of laborers and one which reminds the working class that they are the heart and soul of America.
On the Waterfront (1954)
By Ben McDonald
Indisputably a major landmark in American cinema and the progress of acting alike, On the Waterfront is an ethically complex tale of dock workers, unionization, and corruption. The film features an early Marlon Brando, who delivers one of his all-time finest performances as morally-conflicted longshoreman Terry Malloy. Brando manages to bring a remarkable amount of naturalism and even vulnerability to his character purely through his physical presence and vocal inflections, best seen in a late scene where Terry laments his failure to amount to anything but a “bum”. Transpiring in a car, the brief scene between Terry and his brother is simply staged but emotionally devastating, and it’s easily the film’s most memorable moment.
Director Elia Kazan faced substantial hostility from Hollywood for identifying former communists to the hysterical witch hunt that was the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. On the Waterfront, which very much unpacks the psychological and emotional baggage of being an informant, has since been understood as a response to Kazan’s critics. The film’s already-present excellence is only magnified with this fascinating discourse with history, and it remains to this day an irreplaceable staple of American cinema.
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
By Matt Schlee
Harlan County U.S.A. is a documentary which follows a Kentucky miner’s strike in 1973. The film goes behind the scenes and views talks between union organizers, the plight of the workers, and the overall tone throughout the town which was dominated by this extended work stoppage. It portrays negotiations and the legal battle which surrounded the strike. The film is a sound reminder that working class middle America’s major focus was once labor rights. It’s a film which plays with an odd nostalgia in an age of right-to-work laws where the power of labor unions are sorely diminished in America.
Still, Harlan County U.S.A. remains incredibly relevant. The powerful portrayal of the plight of these working people seeking fair treatment and control over their own working conditions is highly sympathetic. It’s head-on approach to discussing the politics around unionization and labor rights resonates loudly. While many films have been made about members of the working class, Harlan County U.S.A. is perhaps the most important film ever made about the working class itself.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
By George Morris
Margaret Thatcher’s rule over Britain was tumultuous to say the least, affecting millions of hardworking members of the public and casting what seemed like a dark cloud over their day to day lives. It’s still amazing then that Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette feels like such an ode to this particular time period in history, especially when it’s so hell-bent on being darn chipper.
Omar Ali (Gordon Warnecke) is a young Pakistani living in Battersea, South London. Struggling to take care of his resentful alcoholic father and make a living for himself, he asks for the help of his uncle Nessar (Saeed Jaffrey) – a wealthy entrepreneur and receives a washed-up, dilapidated laundrette business amidst the high street, which Omar soon realizes he can use to rise to local stardom and become a successful businessman. A young Daniel Day-Lewis puts this in jeopardy however, as he and Omar develop their old friendship into a passionate relationship and risk their financial stability and religious views over love. Originally intended to be a television film, instead this film shot to success and it’s not difficult to see why. Not only does the film touch on the difficulties of the working-class in a similar fashion to This is England, but it also manages to draw in difficult discussions about homosexuality and religion at the same time without ever succumbing to the doom and gloom of the situation. Omar’s ambitions are universal, and his rise to the top through a delightfully kitsch laundrette in South London is a calling card that’s difficult to pass up. Not everything has to feel so dreary.
By Ian Floodgate
If I was asked for a sound and image to define Britain in the 1990s I would say the music of Oasis and the Trainspotting film poster that took pride of place on my eldest brother’s bedroom wall. Trainspotting is one most iconic British films ever made. It is so revered that earlier this year the original central cast and crew reunited to make a highly anticipated sequel. It follows a group of friends who all bar one use or are addicted to heroin, and their lives in an economically deprived area of Edinburgh. Despite Trainspotting being known for displaying a candid approach to drug-taking and addiction that had rarely been seen in a film before, there are many more elements that make this film stand out. Director Danny Boyle‘s use of music that has a cultural importance helps the film connect with its core audience of working-class adolescents. It is also a motion picture that displays the qualities of using film as the raw grainy appearance of it heightens the accurately shown lifestyle of young Brits who struggle in poverty. This is one of the key reasons why it was adored by young working-class Brits of the time along with its brilliantly stylized elements. If you are like me and grew up in 1990s Britain you will know what Trainspotting means to the blue collar Brits during the decade. It has made a long lasting impression upon me and brother’s generation as well as internationally.
Office Space (1999)
By Ben McDonald
While most films about labor center around the plight of blue-collar workers, Mike Judge’s 1999 satirical comedy Office Space fills the unique niche of depicting the tedious struggle of white-collar America. Originating from one of Judge’s cartoon sketches, the film follows a handful of programmers and mid-level businessmen as they go about their dreadfully dull lives in their painfully generic jobs. Office Space has a somewhat unremarkable narrative, but its satirical exaggeration of the middle-class workplace is what truly sells itself.
From the notoriously unfeeling drawl of Gary Cole’s Bill Lumbergh character (who absolutely steals the show), to the mildly infuriating ticks of an average work day- a constantly jamming printer, a secretary whose high pitched voice screeches over the cardboard cubicle walls, the one pushover employee who always manages to receive the short end of the stick (incarnated by the ever diverse Stephen Root), Office Space finds its loudest laughs in its dreary aesthetic of inescapable boredom. It’s not a particularly great film, but the hushed, restrained manner in which it presents its comedy is both memorably hilarious and equally foreboding to this writer (who may be destined to work in such a place himself).
October Sky (1999)
By Dalton Mullins
October Sky is a film that has been neglected by cinephiles and film enthusiasts. What could be so special about a late 90’s Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle about a teenage boy who wishes to be a rocket scientist in a dying town centered around coal mining? To begin, the performances are outstanding and filled with raw emotional substance. It was Gyllenhaal’s breakout performance and was supported brilliantly by Chris Cooper as his hard-nosed father who tirelessly worked to keep the mine afloat and staunchly disapproved of his son’s interests, as well as Laura Dern appearing as the school teacher who inspired him to pursue and achieve his goals and ambitions. There is also an extremely prevalent theme of labor, unions, and their effect on the small-town mining industry.
Throughout the film, the failing mine and the restless workers provide a backdrop to the activities that Gyllenhaal and his friends engage in. Gyllenhaal sees rocketry as a way to escape the town even as his friends don’t share the same enthusiasm; they constantly reference their probable fates as miners. Cooper, as the head of the mine, struggles with the unionized labor force and the increasing likelihood of a worker’s strike. Near the end, Gyllenhaal attends the National Science Fair with a display on his amateur rocketry but his display was stolen. To receive a replacement, the town needs access to the machine shop which is closed due to the strike. Cooper must navigate the difficult waters of negotiating with the striking workers to ultimately help his son in a desperate situation. October Sky is often relegated to the role of a minor work in the entirety of the film canon, but the notable performances from the entire cast and the film’s meditation on the impact of labor in our lives makes the film worth seeing and memorable.
This is England (2006)
By George Morris
Shane Meadows’ first foray into the apolitical skinhead subculture of the UK soaks up the gum-stained and drizzly showers of the midlands in the 1980s perfectly. It also chooses not to dwell on the financial stability or career options of those within working class society, but instead the sense of comradery and family within those who spent their time together.
As young Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is accepted by skinhead Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and his band of new-wave, idyllic indies, we’re taken on a journey through the intense relationships of the individuals dancing to the music, and how despite the mundanity of their appearance, their lives are still filled with as much emotion and drama as those we associate with those higher up the economical ladder, where we believe the stakes to be higher. There’s an undying warmth to Meadows’ skinheads, and an outlook on life that seems like an absolute age away within modern society, harkening back to the litter of communities that strengthened not only England but places around the world – each their own filled with neighborhoods of labor workers with their own struggles. Andrew ‘Combo’ Gascoigne’s (Stephen Graham) uprising against the music-loving and free gang of miscreants takes priority sure, but it doesn’t stop the film from being a wonderful slice of life that isn’t afraid to show the stark reality of what went on when people weren’t looking. Meadows also continued the story for the next several years across a series of equally-riveting series: This is England ‘86, This is England ‘88 and This is England ‘90.
Treacle Jr. (2010)
By Ian Floodgate
Treacle Jr. has many elements of social realist cinema that I enjoy. The film uses real locations within London that I identify with having lived and worked in the English capital. The cinematography also helps immerse me within the film with the camera operation being handheld and often giving an intimate insight into the lives of its central characters.
Treacle Jr. follows Tom (Tom Fisher) as he appears to be burdened by the responsibilities of being married and having a family. He decides to leave home and head for London and disposes of any personal belongings, including bank cards, leaving himself with a couple of hundred pounds in cash. Whilst sleeping rough on the streets, he is ignored by members of the public and chased by a gang of youths and as a result of this runs into a tree knocking himself unconscious. The following morning he wakes up in A&E where he befriends Aidan (Aidan Gillen). It is clear that Aidan has some learning difficulties which lead to him living an unfortunate life. As the relationship develops between the two, Tom sees the hardships Aidan faces, having no job and a girlfriend who takes advantage of him.
The insight into social problems in Britain such as homelessness and how society treats people that have no home as well as people with disabilities is saddening. Treacle Jr. was released at a time in Britain when the current government decided to close down soup kitchens, further hindering the life of people on the streets. Despite a significant portrayal of a dysfunctional society Treacle Jr.’s writer/director Jamie Thraves had to remortgage his house in order to raise funds to make the film, which shows the difficulty British filmmakers have in being able to tell such compelling stories.