Labor unrest is not uncommon in any category of work. It is associated with blue-collar jobs and fights with unions seen on the streets with picket lines that play out in public. It has been part of building an industrial state where if the pay and conditions are better, the quality and comfort of the work bring equilibrium to the business. As we enter the next month on the SAG-WGA strike, this is still felt within Hollywood as the questions of AI, residuals, and writers’ rooms are still being fought with the next decade of streaming still looking to usurp up network TV spaces and movie theaters. Speaking of strikes, several movies internationally have used historical labor unrest as the scene for the film.
Russian legend Sergei Eisenstein made his debut before his world-famous The Battleship Potemkin with this story about a factory in crisis with its workers revolting against the harsh realities. It begins with a quote by Vladimir Lenin: “The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing.” In its pro-socialist themes, episodes of the disruption set in 1900s Russia dissect the old ways of what it was like before the Revolution of 1917. Using Eisenstein’s Soviet montage theory, the action is pieced together for maximum effect to enlarge its power.
The Organizer (1963)
Marcello Mastroianni stars as a labor union activist in 19th century Italy who arrives in the city of Turin to help complaining workers organize a strike and protest the long working hours and lack of safety. But Mario Monicelli’s tragic-comedy finds only disorganization amongst the group who only know about submission and the leader who is constantly on the run from the police. There is skepticism from all corners going into uncharted territory with the activist’s savvy confidence and the fear of physical reprisals the workers only know of. A happy ending is nowhere to be found.
Tout Va Bien (1972)
In his period of radical filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard brought Yves Montand and Jane Fonda on as a married journalist couple who cover a strike at a sausage factory. Still fueling himself from the events of May 1968, Godard creates a unique staging with the camera pulling back and showing all the rooms at the same time, using a Brectian technique from theater staging. With long takes, Godard is able to placate the struggle between the workers and the management, and the demand for social upheaval against the growing consumerism of 70s France.
Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field won her first Oscar as the titular character who leads a push to form a union in the factory where she works due to terrible working conditions. Loosely based on a real-life figure named Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae is about fighting the system where they stubbornly refuse to make changes and see the renegade worker as a threat. The famous scene of Rae standing up with the word “Union” to the workers is the same as what happened in Sutton’s story, leading up to the unionizing of the factory.
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