Tired of the usual Hollywood ending? The Wayne State Labor Studies Center presents a series of four films about strikes – one each from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – that attempt to inspire through splendid example rather than by guaranteeing that right will prevail.
Perhaps the reason films about workers’ struggles usually end sadly is that, as Rosa Luxemburg is often paraphrased, "the workers lose every struggle but the last" – the last one being the revolution. In these films, however, the workers take two out of four.
Each film shows, in its own way, the dogged violence of the forces arrayed against those who fight for better conditions, whether they are Italian factory workers, Chicano zinc miners or Appalachian coal miners. Quite different from the cynical display of violence by a Tarantino or a Peckinpah, the filmmakers’ use of violence here is to reveal the cynicism of those who would keep workers in their place.
The New Mexico sheriff in Salt of the Earth (1953) is the willing agent of New York owners. In real life, Salt’s director, screenwriter and producer were all blacklisted, along with actor Will Geer. The Mexican star, Rosario Revueltas, was deported before shooting was over. In Harlan County USA, an Oscar-winning documentary about Kentucky miners in the ’70s, the courts, the police and company gun thugs face strikers and their wives, also armed.
John Sayles’ Matewan depicts Baldwin-Felts thugs cutting a young boy’s throat when he refuses to name union leaders. At the boy’s funeral, Joe the organizer, a pacifist and socialist, tries to convince the workers to remain nonviolent: "Shooting is what they (the companies) want now." Replies a worker leader, "Maybe it’s what we want too."
Themes overlap, but this is not to say that these films are all of a piece. In this slice of life – of workers’ battles with the powerful – certain motifs repeat, in art because in life. The focus on violence is what these films have in common with any other you’ll view this year. But what you won’t see at the multiplex is the solidarity, and that’s what you’ll remember.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.