Happy Labor Day, everyone! Looks like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which weirdly wants us to care about its boring titular character with a Great Destiny™ more than his father/nemesis with the genuinely compelling backstory and agency over the plot, but whatever) is going to break the “Labor Day Box Office Curse,” which means Disney’s “experiment” is going to work out. As it usually does for them.
But man, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about how this is the big movie we’re talking about on the federal holiday designated by President Grover Cleveland as a conciliatory gesture in the wake of the Pullman Strike, aka one of the most important historical events in America that our high school history classes don’t mention. It’s strange that all of the Oscar talk during the long weekend when we reflect on our gratitude for things like weekends and paid sick leave is focused on… portrayals of British and intergalactic royalty at posh film festivals instead of, say, these types of characters:
Sally Field won an Oscar for that, by the way. Movies about wage workers organizing and marching for collective bargaining rights used to be popular with the Academy. Heck, they used to be popular with general audiences; Norma Rae earned back almost five times its budget at the box office in 1979.
Where are the movies about labor movements? Why aren’t they produced, anymore?
There used to be so many only a few decades ago. By big filmmakers and with major stars, no less! Martin Scorsese’s second-ever feature was a lovers-on-the-run crime thriller centered on the plight of railroad workers. In between You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, Sean Connery starred in a historical drama about Irish immigrant workers struggling for better conditions in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Bound for Glory started off as a typical famous musician biopic before shifting its focus to the suffering workers of Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and was an Oscar-winning hit in 1976. Warren Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director for his three-hour epic about socialist agitator John Reed. Silkwood, an exceptional character drama featuring my personal favorite Meryl Streep performance, was a box office hit that received several Oscar nominations. And that’s not even getting into the documentaries, including Harlan County, U.S.A., possibly the greatest documentary ever produced in the United States (it’s up there, at least). None of these are super-old Golden Age of Hollywood artifacts. All of the examples I just named were released during the American New Wave, which wasn’t that long ago.
But then sometime around the early 90’s, these stories started to fade from mainstream movie culture. Disney, no kidding, actually produced and released a live-action musical starring a teenage Christian Bale in 1992 about the New York City newsboy strike of 1899. And that movie… was a massive bomb and one of the worst financial failures suffered by the company ever. And then that was it; Hollywood either by coincidence or in reaction to the failure of Newsies stopped trying to sell labor movement struggles to mainstream audiences. Sure, you had Office Space, resolved not with any kind of organizing, but simply the characters getting off scot-free on pure luck and finding marginally better jobs at the end. Charlize Theron was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in North Country, but that was a hopelessly dated and misguided movie that lays the blame for pervasive workplace sexual harassment on cartoonishly evil individual men with no systemic indictments (though, thankfully, The Assistant managed to succeed where North Country failed at accurately portraying how a toxic misogynistic workplace actually manifests).
It’s not like good pro-labor movies have ceased existing entirely in other parts of the world. Go outside of the United States and you’ve got the United Kingdom, Belgium, and France still producing mainstream, accessible dramas (at least in their home countries) with positive depictions of labor organizing. But in the United States, I can’t think of even mid-sized movies produced about working class people organizing as a force for good in opposition to abusive bosses in recent years. Nomadland, as moving and thoughtful as it was in many respects, largely avoided framing the plight of impoverished itinerant workers in the wake of the Great Recession as a direct consequence of larger corporate forces acting against them. You may remember one of the most criticized scenes in the movie being a suspiciously beatific shot of an Amazon warehouse.
The year before that, you had movies like The Irishman, which was a four hour-long chronicle of how the Teamsters became corrupted and indistinguishable from a mafia. A (mostly) true story, but a far cry from movies telling true stories about organized labor being the recipients of mafia-style abuse vice the perpetrators of it. Sorry To Bother You was an independently-produced, wildly original, and fiercely leftist sci-fi polemic that was not a financial success and received barely any awards attention at the end of 2018. And if we were restricted to looking for working-class men rebelling against predatory corporations in recent bonafide box office hits, this is who we get:
I still remember the tiresome barely-veiled commercials masquerading as thinkpieces for Spider-Man: Homecoming back in 2017 praising Marvel for its depiction of a Complex and Sympathetic Villain who has Something To Say about the Times We Live In. But… he’s still The Bad Guy in a movie where the heroic aspirational father figure for Peter Parker is the billionaire industrialist whose multi-national corporation puts the villain out of a job. Tony Stark does not face any consequences for doing that, either.
There have been a lot of discussions lately about how superhero stories have stopped being about the Everyman and more about the Superman (in the general sense) – how Marvel and DC have been doing away with secret identities and heroes trying to balance their amazing adventures with mundane issues of everyday life in favor of billionaires and kings “struggling” to accept their preordained greatness. But I think another weird shift in the movie landscape recently has been holding up agitators as villains. Adrian Toomes is the working class embodiment of this, but Killmonger, Daenerys, and White Fang are presented with a similar sleight-of-hand in giving them a sympathetic motivation before they Go Too Far and are stopped by the hero, and then the story just… moves right along, without meaningfully addressing the circumstances that kicked off the villain’s actions in the first place.
I used to think there would always be a place for celebrations of union organizing and labor leaders in a heavy union town like Hollywood. It’s probably one of only a tiny handful of industries in the 21st century with a continued substantial union presence. But that might be waning. Stars don’t draw in audiences anymore, franchises do. Writers and directors don’t shape stories anymore, corporate committees do. If visual effects artists can’t meet unreasonable demands, they’re just fired and scapegoated by James Corden and Rebel Wilson at the Oscars. Movie studios have more power now than they’ve had since before the collapse of the studio system in the 1960’s, especially with the dismantling of consent decrees last year, which reigned in major movie studios from monopolizing distribution chains (aka theaters) for decades. Spending money on and distributing movies about workers fighting for a better deal and more bargaining power over their bosses isn’t really a message that gels with their corporate aims.
But they’re vital messages. They are messages that previous generations of workers took to heart and fought and often died for. It’s why this day exists, and our films should continue to keep the spirit of the holiday alive.