Over the last several years, there has been an uptick in the number of films that address class, power, inequality, and global capitalism. Writers and directors have taken up these themes in feature-length films and documentaries and against the backdrop of the Great Recession, the Occupy movement, the Movement for Black Lives, #MeToo, and the rise of Trumpian nativism. Eschewing any sense of a monolithic working-class character, the films represent a twenty-first-century class-consciousness rooted in the experiences of workers grappling with how sexism, racism, and power operate under capitalism.
Independent documentarians — not beholden to the whims of Hollywood — have consistently documented class struggle in the United States, and they deserve wide audiences. Union Time: Fighting for Workers’ Rights (2016) is among the best recent documentary films on a labor campaign. The film tells the story of how workers at the Smithfield Pork Processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, fought for and won a union contract after years of struggle. Filmed and written by Matthew and Carolina Barr — and one of several films in the Unheard Voices Project — Union Time charts the history of Smithfield from 1936 through the early 2000s, when it grew to be the largest pork-processing plant in the country, with five thousand workers processing more than 27 million hogs a year. Through interviews with workers, we hear nightmarish stories of workplace accidents and company abuses. For instance, the Birdsong case, well-known to the workers, involved a twenty-three-year-old man who fell into a tank and died of chemical exposure and suffocation. For that preventable death, Smithfield was fined a mere four thousand dollars. The tragedy confirmed for one worker that “this is not a human’s job; this is an animal’s job.”
Conditions were so bad that workers began to organize almost immediately after the plant opened in 1993, soon forming a relationship with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). The Smithfield workers faced hostility immediately. It was, after all, the deregulated and virulently antiunion North Carolina, where, just two years prior and sixty miles west, a fire at the Imperial poultry processing plant had killed twenty-five workers and injured dozens more.1 Even after that tragedy, North Carolina’s meatpacking workers did not witness much change. For instance, Smithfield gained approval from the state to create a special police force at its plant, and pro-union workers faced intimidation, surveillance, and false charges.
In 2006, after years of struggling to gain a foothold, the UFCW altered its strategy. By that point, the plant was 60 percent Latinx; Black, White, and Lumbee Indian workers made up the rest. The company increasingly used anti-immigrant attacks to weaken the union, threatening undocumented workers with deportation and exploiting racial fault lines. Workers and UFCW staff confronted the tensions and built coalitions with civil rights, labor, and progressive organizations. After a dramatic series of protests and court settlement, in 2008 workers voted and won. It was the biggest victory in UFCW history in the most antiunion state in the country.
Narrated by actor Danny Glover, a consummate supporter of southern labor, the film offers an unflinching reminder of the stakes that meatpacking workers face. The film ends with a union victory and Obama carrying North Carolina to win the presidency. It’s a surreal conclusion given what we know is coming: a housing crisis and widening gap between the wealthy and working poor; the largest immigration raids across the South’s poultry plants; and, in 2020, COVID-19, during which meatpacking workers, deemed “essential workers,” will experience some of the highest rates in the country.
Since the Great Recession, a flurry of major motion pictures have squarely taken up themes related to the neoliberal, global economy and class inequality. In a film landscape made up largely of big-budget spin-offs and sequels whose purpose is to generate big profits at the box office, this is a welcome development. Two feature-length films — Sorry to Bother You and Sorry We Missed You — explore how workers in the gig and service economies navigate neoliberal workplaces and logics. That both begin with an apology seems fitting as the protagonists in the films — men navigating the persistent violence of the economy — start out desperate for work, adamantly convincing their future bosses that they will be flexible employees. The two films, however, diverge sharply in imagining how workers can wrest power and control in a system that otherwise will break their bodies and spirits.
Activist and rap artist Boots Riley (lead vocalist of the Coup) wrote and directed Sorry to Bother You (2018), a visually rich, dark comedy about corporate power and labor struggles under modern-day capitalism. Riley, who identifies as a communist, has explained that he made a film that revolves around a working-class movement partly out of frustration that most Hollywood films typically show workplaces devoid of class struggle.2 Created on a shoestring budget by industry standards, Sorry to Bother You is informed by political lessons Riley learned organizing alongside farmworkers as a teenager and in the Occupy movement as an adult, as well as his experience working as a telemarketer.
Early in the film the protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, starts his new job at Regal View, a telemarketing firm in Oakland that sells magazines on the lower floor and something more elusive upstairs, where the Power Callers work. The low-level workers are not allowed upstairs without a promotion and an elaborate, heavily guarded passcode. After struggling to make a sale, Cash, a slender, slightly hunched-over Black millennial who dresses in preppy slacks and well-worn sweater vests, seeks advice from Langston, an older worker played by Danny Glover. Langston explains to Cash how to manipulate his voice to sound “white,” or as Langston explains, the way that white people believe they sound. Cash has a knack for it and excels as a telemarketer, coaxing his customers into purchases. Concurrently, he learns from his coworkers about a unionization effort in the workplace. After he joins a wildcat strike and starts to show a tendency for leadership, his supervisors offer him a coveted promotion to the Power Caller suite, and he takes it. In the suite, Cash sells firepower and manpower for WorryFree, an international company that offers workers lifetime contracts in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing (i.e., modern slavery). He is soon able to buy a functioning car, help his family, and move out of his uncle’s garage.
In his new job, Cash faces an increasing moral dilemma. His artist-activist girlfriend Detroit develops as the moral counter to Cash. Played brilliantly by Tessa Thompson, Detroit is an artist who supports herself working as a sign spinner and telemarketer. Her artwork explores themes of colonialism and exploitation of Black labor, and her activism pulls her into militant direct action against WorryFree. Cash and Detroit’s relationship is irreconcilable for a time until Cash finally comes face-to-face with the horrors that his labor has supported, pushing him to rejoin his friends in the strike.
To explore racial capitalism and the experiences of modern workers, Riley employs what he calls a “bent reality,” and what others have categorized as magical realism. In the world of Sorry to Bother You, Detroit’s ever-changing sculpture-like earrings hint at broader political issues; the most popular TV show is I Got Shit Kicked Out of Me, and the content is exactly what the title describes; and Cash sometimes reaches through the phone and is face-to-face with the powerful men to whom he sells wares. Although a different world than ours, it feels almost like a more accurate depiction through its exaggerations. In the most outrageous bend in reality, the CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift (played by Armie Hammer) experiments successfully with genetically altered, or “advanced,” workers. “This isn’t irrational,” he explains to Cash.
Arguably the most radical major film in decades, Sorry to Bother You shows workers grappling with their place in the economy, challenging one another to join working-class uprisings, leveraging power collectively, and fighting for liberation. Riley explores these politics with artistry, without veering into didacticism. And, astonishingly, he anticipated the future: Sorry to Bother You ends with an uprising in the streets, in which a multiracial throng, in their quest to wrest control from corporate and undemocratic forces, faces off against police officers in riot gear.
Like Sorry to Bother You, Sorry We Missed You (2019) examines the plight of workers caught in the jaws of the gig economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Beyond that, the differences are stark. Employing a sobering social realism, the film revolves around a white working-class family unit. Their world is devoid of mass uprisings; instead the film explores working-class resignation.
Sorry We Missed You tells the story of the former blue-collar worker Ricky (Kris Hitchin) as he starts a new job as a delivery driver for a third-party company in northern England. The opening scene shows Ricky in an interview with a hulking manager of the company, Parcels Delivered Fast. “Have you ever been on the dole?” he asks. “No, I’d rather starve first,” Ricky replies, slightly bewildered, performing pliancy. The manager continues: workers don’t get hired but come on board, and they don’t clock on but “become available.” There are no contracts or wages in this world, only piecework. Ricky’s earnings will be based on how quickly he works. He is, as the manager explains, the master of his own destiny. The scene ends with Ricky asking about whether he needs to purchase his own van or lease one from the company, to which the manager replies, “Like everything around here, Ricky, it’s your choice.”
That scene sets up perfectly the rest of the film, in which Ricky weighs every so-called choice in order to dig him and his family out of debt and put them on firm footing. He and his family lost their home amid the housing crisis, and his single-minded focus is to replace it. But that requires first going deeper into debt: he purchases a van in order to become a delivery driver, selling his wife Abbie’s car to get enough cash for a down payment. Abbie, played by Debbie Honeywood, is a home healthcare worker. Her company asks her to see more people than she can manage in one day (especially as she now relies on public transportation), and often the needs of her patients cannot be met in the time allotted, causing the nurturing Abbie much consternation. Meanwhile, Rickie works at a breakneck speed to beat the clock, skipping meals and urinating in bottles.
Tension builds in the family, especially between Ricky and his teenage son, Seb (played by Rhys Stone). In one scene, Ricky parrots his manager from the opening scene and attempts to convince Seb, who has been skipping school, to follow rules so that he will have “some choices” in life. But Seb understands already that the rules don’t apply to families like his. His parents work all day, rarely seeing their children, yet can’t get ahead. The film builds to an explosive climax. The morning after he is robbed and badly beaten during one of his shifts, Ricky drags his broken body to the van and, as his wife and young daughter frantically plead with him to stay home, drives away in order to get to work on time.
Director Ken Loach (who has made films featuring working people since the 1960s) and his collaborator, the screenwriter Paul Laverty, work diligently to show how neoliberalism’s tentacles reach into working people’s lives, offering them false choices, breaking their bodies, and fraying family ties — leaving them with no explanation but to blame themselves for their failures. “It just seems to me that everything is out of whack,” Abbie says in one moment of distress. Loach, who has previously told stories about labor struggles, for instance in Bread and Roses (2000) about a janitors’ strike in Los Angeles, has turned to darker themes with his last two films, Sorry We Missed You and I, Daniel Blake (2016) — exploring how working-class people have lost power in recent decades.
Sorry We Missed You captures what journalist Emily Guendelsberger calls “cyborg jobs” and how they wreak havoc on workers’ lives. Employers in the low-wage service sector increasingly expect workers to “amputate the messy human bits of themselves — family, hunger, thirst, emotions, the need to make rent, sickness, fatigue, boredom, depression, traffic — or at least keep that completely at bay.”3 The problem for these workers — and for Ricky — is that eventually these jobs break them, leaving them worse off than when they started the job.
Unlike the characters in Sorry to Bother You, the workers in Sorry We Missed You rarely advocate for themselves, much less organize. Flipping back and forth between Ricky’s and Abbie’s work lives, Loach lures us into feeling their frustrations, their exhaustion. Nonetheless, it’s hard to cheer for Ricky; he is stubborn to a fault, and that will be the downfall of him and his family. We see this most notably in the moments when his wife and daughter comfort him but never quite reach him. Ricky asserts himself as the patriarch and insists he will find a way to buy a house for his family if it kills him, and his job might. But that is part of the point of the film. Even willful, unquestioning Ricky does not deserve the hand that’s been dealt him, but who will fight for him? Sorry We Missed You leaves the audience to ponder that question.
Both Sorry films portray women as more caring and virtuous, even more capable of envisioning a just future, than their male counterparts, leaving one to wonder how the narratives might shift from their perspectives. Two recent films take us into the experiences of women office workers.
With the documentary film 9to5: The Story of a Movement, directors Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar examine the origins of the women’s movement of office workers through the stories of the cofounders of 9to5, Karen Nussbaum and Ellen Cassedy. The two met at the University of Chicago, although Nussbaum soon moved to Boston to join the antiwar movement (where she would meet Jane Fonda). Nussbaum supported herself working as a clerical worker at Harvard, and Cassedy soon joined her. Frustrated by a host of problems in the workplace — monotony, discrimination, and the sense that nothing ever changed — the two friends began the Harvard Office Workers Group in the fall of 1972. The ten women who met for those first meetings saw themselves as bringing together the women’s and labor movements. They began a newsletter titled 9to5 and soon formed caucuses that represented various office workers and brought discrimination lawsuits against Boston companies. In 1975, 9to5 formed Local 925 with SEIU, an autonomous local that expanded the 9to5 organizing model to other cities, including Cleveland, Seattle, and Atlanta.
The film usefully contextualizes the 9to5 organization. It features numerous interviews with early 9to5 members, along with Local 925 members and organizers. Archival film footage gives the viewer a glimpse into how workers effectively organize, encounter struggles, and score victories. The film also explains the origins of the Hollywood movie and Dolly Parton hit single of the same title, which many people are familiar with but don’t always understand is rooted in real women’s organizing. In her award-winning book Knocking on Labor’s Door, Lane Windham, who is featured throughout the film, writes that 9to5 helped “to drive a cultural shift, even before it inspired the 9 to 5 movie, which was the group’s crowning achievement on the cultural front.”4
Perhaps one of the most significant yet unfinished battles of 9to5 was its focus on gender discrimination and harassment in the workplace, a topic at the core of the 2019 movie The Assistant. Directed, edited, and produced by Kitty Green, The Assistant addresses the pervasiveness of sexism and gendered power built into the film industry. The protagonist, Jane (Julia Garner), is a recent graduate and aspiring producer who has recently been hired as a junior assistant at a film production company. We follow reliable and hard-working Jane during one day of work. She spends her day doing exactly the kind of work that 9to5 protested — acting as custodian, servant, and personal assistant to her boss, plus lots of other office workers who recognize her as the gofer. Her work days are mundane, but this day is different: She begins to piece together that her boss is a sexual predator and also that the industry protects and accommodates such men. A product of the #MeToo revelations, the film, as explained by Green in an interview, is a bottom-up exploration of sex and power in the film industry. She continued that through “an assistant who works for a predator, I could explore everything I was interested in thematically, from gendered work environments through to sexual misconduct.”5
Exploring these themes from Jane’s point of view heightens the suspense. The film opens with Jane arriving before sunrise and switching on fluorescent lights to an eerie effect. As the film progresses, she and we begin to understand that something is wrong — from clues found in an empty office to muffled voices behind closed doors, phone calls by a desperately angry wife, and the young, conventionally attractive women and girls ushered from one room to the next.
We never see an act of violence, and that’s part of the problem for Jane. How can she file a complaint if she doesn’t exactly have evidence for what her gut is telling her? How can she even express what she believes is occurring around her? Jane hasn’t worked long at the firm, only a few months, but we understand that she is overworked and exhausted. On this day, her emotions are rawer than usual because she missed her father’s birthday — so maybe she can’t trust herself. Marked by the absence of dialogue in the film, she is alone literally and figuratively and has no one to turn to for counsel.
Incredibly, Green manages to make startling a film that consists almost completely of scenes of a woman moving around an office building as she completes her tasks and observes what is around her. Like Jane Fonda, who met with office workers in preparation for the movie 9 to 5, Green and Julia Garner talked to assistants in preparation for filming. We can see that in the emotional textures of The Assistant, in how Jane expresses confusion, fear, frustration, and boredom, as well as the portentous atmosphere the film creates. Deeply humane, The Assistant is an indictment of how far we have to go in creating workplaces built on dignity and respect.
The most arresting of the films reviewed here, Bisbee ’17 takes up themes of memory, class, ethno-nationalism, and immigrant labor in US history. Directed by Robert Green, the film examines the history and memory of the 1917 labor struggle in the copper fields of Bisbee, Arizona. During World War I miners worked around the clock, making the mining companies massive profits. To maintain production, the companies hired more men, including many immigrants, who faced unsafe working conditions and discrimination. Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began organizing in Bisbee that summer, especially attentive to the experiences of Mexican and eastern European immigrants. In late June, after companies rejected a list of worker demands and miners went on strike, the Sherriff Harry Wheeler deputized two thousand Anglo miners, many of them members of “Loyalty Leagues.” Several days later, after clashing with strikers, they rounded up one thousand men — some strikers, some not, but most of them immigrants — and deported them by cattle car across the border to the desert in New Mexico. If they returned, they were told, they would be killed.
In 2017, citizens of Bisbee began a series of events to bring the story of the deportation out of the shadows. Interweaving narrative elements, like setting and characters, with documentary techniques, most notably interviews with descendants and town residents, Bisbee ’17 examines how the community reckons with the history of the deportation. It also layers collective memory and present-day issues, including rising anti-immigrant sentiment and contemporary antiunionism. Residents of the town reenact the deportation and, with astonishing creativity, the moments leading up to it, or at least the way they have imagined them. They do so through a musical theater production that tells the story of miners and company owners, a reenactment of the deportation on the anniversary, and an art exhibit, in which every person deported is identified by name. Throughout, we also hear from local people — former miners, company bosses, and descendants — about how the history has been passed down to them. One local woman argues that, in this case, the winners definitely wrote the history: the collective memory grew from the stories and beliefs of the miners and company officials who oversaw the deportation.
Fernando Serrato, a youthful, expressive Latinx local, provides the cohesive glue in the film. Through his personal history and that of his character’s story in the reenactment, past and present intertwine, and the film makes its boldest assertions about the power of collective memory in present-day politics and society. We learn that Serrato had a difficult childhood and that, after his mother’s incarceration and eventual deportation, he raised himself. He has a fierce love of Bisbee, but he is only just learning about the town’s fraught history. In the town’s production, he plays a fictional character — a Mexican immigrant miner named Fernando Serrato who moved with his mother to Bisbee for more opportunities.
Through the real and fictional Serrato, we grasp how the film intertwines the history of the deportation with present-day politics. Instead of opportunity in Bisbee, the fictional Serrato experiences wage discrimination and a hostile workplace. With its raucous meetings and anthem “Solidarity Forever,” the IWW soon attracts Serrato. In one scene an older Mexican miner (in real life, a former bull rider) explains in Spanish the power of the IWW. In another scene, set in 2020, the real Serrato converses with James West, one of the only professional actors in the group who plays a general manager of a mine who oversaw the 1917 deportation. Earlier in his life West worked as a guard in private prisons and on deportation flights (“criminal” and “noncriminal,” as he explains). In one conversation between West and Serrato — whether it is staged or real is unclear — the two discuss the reenactment. West jokes about playing a role in which he deports people who failed to “assimilate,” a fate that awaits the fictional Serrato and that hits close to home for the real one.
A group of descendants of deputized miners and town authorities offers the darkest perspective of the collective history. In the most jarring example, an Anglo granddaughter of a deputized miner who deported his own brother watches stone-faced as her sons perform the roles of her grandfather and great uncle, brother against brother. She believes fervently that her grandfather protected the community from socialism and communism. Another descendent, whose father was a company manager and painstakingly collects and catalogues ephemera from the mines, including implements and precious rocks, says that his family didn’t talk about the deportation because it might raise questions. He continues, however, that the deputized miners “were right.” IWW was too radical and had to be expelled.
Creatives and scholars in Bisbee helping to spearhead some of the commemorative events have different interpretations of the deportation — for example, that it represented a “corporate gulag” and “ethnic cleansing.” Fernando Serrato concludes that the company extracted as much labor as possible from the immigrants and then expelled them.
Few films have so deftly examined “white working-class faith in capitalism,” the topic of Jarod Roll’s new book about miners in the Midwest, Poor Man’s Fortune — a perfect pairing with this film. Shot like a western, with a wide format that showcases the mine pits and scarred landscape in shades of red, orange, and brown, Bisbee ’17 captures the belief in a rugged individualism and domination of the land. Like the miners in Roll’s book, those in Bisbee expressed a belief in “capitalism, the nation, whiteness, and their own physical prowess.”6
That faith dies hard, as we learn from Anglo miners’ descendants. The current mayor describes how Bisbee, once a bustling, wealthy copper mining town, saw steep population decline and skyrocketing rates of poverty after the 1930s. Yet, he explains, people still believe that Phelps Dodge, the largest of the mining companies that owned the crown jewel, the Copper Queen Mine, will restart operations someday. “God, country, and the Copper Queen Mine,” sing the actors playing company officials in the town’s theater production.
Those of us teaching labor history will find useful the range of recent films that explore class, labor, and capitalism — from major releases to documentary films that offer a more grassroots perspective. Although the lower-budget documentary films will reach a more focused audience, the major releases — only three represented here of several that might have been reviewed — indicate growing awareness of class inequality and, occasionally, class struggle. They do so attuned to how gender, race, and power shape human relationships.
Laura Harding, “Boots Riley — Class Struggle Still Rare to See in Film,” Independent.ie, October 11, 2018, https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/movies/boots-riley-class-struggle-still-rare-to-see-in-film-37410415.html.
Nikki Baughan, “Kitty Green on The Assistant,” BFI.org.uk, May 1, 2020, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/kitty-green-assistant-metoo-film-producer-drama.