This story was originally published by Labor Notes. 

If you search for films about labor, one makes every list: Norma Rae. This most iconic of union movies was a critical and box office smash when it came out in 1979, the same year Labor Notes published its first issue. At that moment, when more Americans than ever before were union members, it wasn’t surprising that a movie about a gutsy labor organizer would prove popular. 

Now, over 40 years later, we know that the labor movement was not then surging but was on the cusp of collapse. And on the big screen, Norma Rae proved to be a one-off. Feature films expressly about class conflict have always been rare in American cinema, and in recent decades have become even more so. 

It is still possible, though, to find engaging and valuable movies about working people where labor/management conflict is not the central focus. Here are my recommendations of some of the best that have come out since Norma Rae and Labor Notes debuted back in 1979.

To keep things manageable, I’ve excluded documentaries and foreign films. Most of my suggestions are available through online streaming services.

UP AND OUT

Big-budget Hollywood pictures featuring working-class leads are likely to be dramatizations of the American dream—what I call “Up and Out” films—in which characters escape, through spunk and determination, their lower-class circumstances. They are, in other words, very often fairy tales, like the many updated Cinderella fantasies: Flashdance[1983], Working Girl [1988], Pretty Woman [1990], Maid in Manhattan[2002]. 

But there are some films in this category that depict working-class communities accurately, even though the main character eventually leaves them. The early scenes in Coal Miner’s Daughter [1980], filmed on location in the Kentucky hollers, faithfully capture the gritty details of coal town life, and Arkansas native musician-turned-actor Levon Helm is spot-on as Loretta Lynn’s hard-working father.

The bittersweet comedy Breaking Away [1979] reminds us that university towns (in this case Bloomington, Indiana) are populated not just by transplanted professors and transient students but by working people, who may view the placid campuses in their hometowns as enemy territory. 

One of the best “Up and Out” films is Real Women Have Curves[2002], set in East Los Angeles. It’s a charming yet serious working-class feminist anthem, a far better one, in my view, than 9 to 5 [1980]. These real women work really hard, though they can also have fun, as shown in what may be the most exuberant scene ever based in a sweatshop.

The film derives its warm authenticity from Latina women: director Patricia Cardosa, screenwriter Josefina López, and a host of superb actors, chief among them America Ferrera in her debut.

DOWN AND OUT

Real Women ends on an upbeat note, but in “Down and Out” films, despair is the dominant motif. The most popular films in this category center around crime, drugs, and violence; most gangland movies at least touch on class dynamics. While they can be excellent in their own right (Drugstore Cowboy [1989], Menace II Society [1993], Winter’s Bone [2010], Tangerine [2015]), collectively they perpetuate the damaging age-old stereotype of a working class defined by vice, immorality, and self-destruction. 

Yet there are less sensational movies in this category that deserve our attention. Manchester by the Sea [2016] is a wrenching tale of broken people struggling for redemption in blue-collar Massachusetts. Two films by director Kelly Reichardt—Wendy and Lucy [2008] and Certain Women [2016]—are quiet meditations on the alienation experienced by women in the rural Northwest. They feature achingly poignant performances; if you’ve never given much thought to what ranch labor might be like, see Certain Women.

In 99 Homes [2014], the human wreckage caused by the foreclosure crisis is wrapped into a powerful suspense drama, underscoring that our most destructive criminals live in mansions and collect stock dividends. I’d call Spike Lee’s brilliant Do the Right Thing [1989] a “Down and Out” film, demonstrating how racism fuels the righteous rage felt by African Americans and splinters the working class. It is also wickedly funny, which makes it an exception in this category.

DOWN BUT DEALING WITH IT

For less somber viewing, seek out films where ordinary people are “Down But Dealing With It”; in the midst of adversity, they derive resilience and even joy from friends and family. These movies have similarities to the “Up and Outs,” except the characters remain firmly planted in the working class.

They are often comedic (Mystery Train [1989], Smoke Signals [1998], Napoleon Dynamite [2004]), and one of my favorites in this genre, the quirky Melvin and Howard [1980], illustrates how, for working people, so often the only luck they have is bad luck.

The kindness of strangers infuses The Straight Story [1999], David Lynch’s surprisingly tender road movie. Eddie Murphy is outstanding in the deeper-than-you-might-expect biopic Dolemite Is My Name[2019], but Da’Vine Joy Randolph also shines in an exceptionally rich woman’s role. 

Julie Dash’s ethereal Daughters of the Dust [1991] defies categorization, but it can be placed here as a film affirming how culture and family—even ancestors long dead—have sustained the African American community.

RESISTANCE AND ORGANIZING

Workers get by with the help of friends and family, but to overcome oppression they must reach beyond those bonds, and so we conclude with “Resistance and Organizing” films. Pickings in this category are slim.

Norma Rae belongs here, and so does Silkwood [1983], the biopic about the life and mysterious death of union activist Karen Silkwood, who battled to expose unsafe conditions at the plutonium plant where she worked. Meryl Streep is, as always, pitch-perfect in the title role, but Cher (yes, Cher) is touching and honest, and the rest of the cast is terrific too. My opinion may be heretical, but I’ve always preferred Silkwood, in its treatment of unions, women, and working-class life, over Norma Rae

Two films center on organizing in the “uneventful” 1920s. Matewan [1987], John Sayles’s beautifully shot account of class warfare in the West Virginia coal fields, is deeply sympathetic to the miners, if fairly one-dimensional in its characterizations. While it also lacks nuance, 10,000 Black Men Named George[2002], Robert Townsend’s tribute to A. Philip Randolph, is a solid recounting of the heroic effort to create the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first Black union. 

Those films are set in the past, but for a look at workplace activism in the (near?) future, Boots Riley’s wildly imaginative, staunchly pro-union satire Sorry to Bother You [2018] is revolutionary in more ways than one. 

I’ll finish with my two favorite films about organizing; indeed they are among my favorite films ever made about anything. The Killing Floor [1984], directed by Bill Duke and written by Leslie Lee, both African American, details the early 20th-century effort to build interracial unionism in the Chicago stockyards.

No other movie so keenly demonstrates how employers sow racial and ethnic animosities for their own gain—Chicago’s 1919 race riot figures in this story—or better depicts the class-conscious dedication required of organizers who struggle against those divisions. For labor activists, all of whom face moments of defeat and despair, the last scene in The Killing Floor should prove inspiring beyond measure. 

Organizers are teachers, a point made clear in the movie Nightjohn [1996]. Charles Burnett, an African American director who has garnered critical acclaim but little mainstream success, delivers a multifaceted exploration of that most cruel and exploitative of labor systems, slavery. To my mind Nightjohn provides the most sophisticated treatment on film of the many forms of slave resistance.

As a slave who makes it his mission to teach others to read, Nightjohn recognizes literacy as a source of power and liberation; a purloined newspaper that brings news of Nat Turner’s rebellion is one way that’s made clear.

Like The Killing FloorNightjohn is both heartbreaking (I always get teary at the end) and profoundly hopeful. Organizers rarely know how the ripples they create later build into mighty waves.

So these are some of the inspiring films that have come out since Labor Notes started inspiring activists back in 1979. Settle in and pass the popcorn! 

(I haven’t included all my favorite movies on this list, and no doubt I overlooked some of yours. You can make additions in the comments, though keep in mind the criteria I used: American films made from 1979 on, and no documentaries. We look forward to hearing your suggestions!)

Where to Find These Films

Most of the movies listed here are available, either included with subscription or for a small rental fee, on streaming services like Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. Some are also available on cable networks like HBO or Starz. Justwatch.com is one site where you can search movie titles to see which streaming services might provide them. 

Certain WomenMystery Train, and Daughters of the Dust are also available, with extra features, on the Criterion Channel.

10,000 Black Men Named Georgeis available free on YouTubeNightjohn is included with an Amazon Prime subscription. 

There are a few movies that are harder (or more expensive) to come by. The Killing Floor has recently been restored, and probably will be released at some point on DVD, but for now can only be seen by purchasing a “virtual ticket” through the Film Movement website

Matewan has just been released as a pricey special-edition DVD from the Criterion Collection, but otherwise is unavailable on streaming services. It will probably show up at least on the Criterion Channel at some future point. 

And much to my frustration, two of my favorite movies—Melvin and Howard and Silkwood—are available only on DVD. Though you can find those DVDs for purchase online, neither film has been restored and Silkwood in particular is a really bad quality transfer (even the Blu-ray, which is just a copy of the DVD).

It’s especially mysterious that Silkwood, given its all-star cast and a revival of interest in labor films, remains so obscure. Rather than spend money on low-quality DVDs, I recommend that you see if your public library carries these films so you might see them for free.


Toni Gilpin is a labor historian, activist, and film buff. She is the author of The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland (Haymarket Books, 2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.