Revolutionary reels

Published : Jul 03, 2024 19:31 IST - 7 MINS READ

“They got you fightin’ white against coloured, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world: them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you get to know about the enemy.”

This is one of the many goosebump-raising moments in the 1987 film Matewan, when Joe Kenehan, played by the lean and charismatic Chris Cooper, says this to a group of workers fighting among themselves. This is a crucial moment in Matewan that encapsulates the film’s central theme of class solidarity overcoming racial and ethnic divisions. Trade union films are a marvel to watch. Whether they star celebrity actors or feature unknown or emerging talents, their very themes make them uniquely beautiful.

A list of such films comes to mind, like Cesar Chavez (2014) directed by Diego Luna. Yes, the same Diego Luna who immortalised the super handsome Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in the immensely popular Netflix drug-drama Narcos: Mexico. In the film, the character of Cesar Chavez, the American labour leader who co-founded United Farm Workers, is played by Michael Peña, who you might remember as Kiki Camarena, the tough cop who hunts down Miguel Félix in Narcos: Mexico.

Other favourites in this genre are Made in Dagenham (2010) and Norma Rae (1979), which highlight the struggles of workers, particularly women, in their fight for fair treatment and equality through trade union activism. Made in Dagenham, a British film, is based on the true story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike at the Dagenham plant in England. Norma Rae is an American drama inspired by the life of Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker who became a union organiser. The film shows Norma Rae’s journey from a minimally educated textile worker to a passionate union activist. Like Matewan, it discusses the difficulties and dangers of union organising in a hostile environment. The intersection of race and class is explored as the film touches on racial tensions within the workforce and how union activism can bridge these divides.

There’s a bunch of other films, mostly American, that I have watched in this genre. They include the tense drama Salt of the Earth (1954), which chronicles a miners’ strike in New Mexico; The Molly Maguires (1970, starring Sean Connery, Richard Harris, et al.) which portrays a secret organisation of Irish-American coal miners; Harlan County, USA (1976), a beautiful, evocative documentary about a coal miners’ strike in Kentucky; and F.I.S.T. (1978), loosely based on the Teamsters union and its former President Jimmy Hoffa. Then there’s Silkwood (1983), which is based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a labour union activist.

The list doesn’t end there. Pride (2014) is about the unlikely alliance between Welsh miners and LGBT activists, and Bread and Roses (2000), directed by Ken Loach, is about janitors in Los Angeles fighting for better working conditions. Bread and Roses is a political slogan originating from a speech by American suffragist Helen Todd, who spoke of “bread for all, and roses too”. At the River I Stand (1993) is a documentary about the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which took place in the two months that led to Martin Luther King Jr’s death in 1968.

While The Killing Floor (1984) discussed union organising in Chicago’s meatpacking industry in the years leading up to the Chicago race riot of 1919, Newsies, the 1992 Disney musical starring a young, charismatic Christian Bale, depicted the New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899, where newspaper hawkers struck against the newspapers of the mighty Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

Blue Collar (1978) portrays auto workers in Detroit struggling against both management and union leadership. This was the first film directed by Paul Schrader, who famously wrote films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and directed cult works like American Gigolo. Blue Collar stars political stand-up legend Richard Pryor. (Hey, did you happen to read our newsletter on political stand-up comedy? If you didn’t, click here!).

You may have noticed most of these are English-language, American films. Mea culpa. Some of the non-English union films that I enjoyed include the Argentinian film La Patagonia rebelde (Rebellion in Patagonia, 1974) directed by Héctor Olivera. This film features the brutal suppression of a sheepherders’ strike in rural Patagonia in the early 1920s. It’s a powerful portrayal of labour struggles in early 20th century Argentina and is considered one of the greatest films ever to come out of the country.

Ressources humaines (Human Resources, 1999) is a French film directed by Laurent Cantet, which explores labour relations in a French factory. There’s also I Compagni (The Organizer, 1963) from Italy, directed by Mario Monicelli. Set in Turin at the end of the 19th century, this film follows a labour activist who helps factory workers organise a strike for better conditions. It’s considered a classic of Italian cinema.

Finally, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), starring my favourite actress, Marion Cotillard, is a 2014 drama that powerfully depicts labour issues. It follows a woman who has a weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job, highlighting issues of worker solidarity and the pressures of modern capitalism.

Why do we love films that discuss trade unionism, workers’ movements, and cooperatives? Simply put, they play a crucial role in shaping public understanding and discourse around labour rights and economic democracy. These films document struggles and victories, educating viewers on labour issues and inspiring action. They challenge the status quo, giving voice to underrepresented working-class narratives. International films even foster global worker solidarity.

Do we have such films in India? Since Independence, Indian cinema has tackled the idea of workers’ rights in myriad ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, a clutch of films emerged where the mazdoor (worker) was the protagonist and workers’ issues were highlighted, starring the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha in Hindi cinema, MGR and Sivaji Ganesan in Tamil, and Prem Nazir, Sathyan, and most importantly Jayan (who can forget his immortal, iconic “We are not beggars” delivery from Angadi, 1980) in Malayalam.

Still, historical trade union events and trade union heroes have yet to find a deserving space in Indian cinema. While there are lovely exceptions like Zwigato, the 2022 Hindi drama directed by Nandita Das, Indian films are yet to catch up with the changes happening in the world of workers and unions.

If you ask me to pick one film that can be called epochal in the history of Indian cinema where the rights of workers or the subject of unionism is discussed, I’d happily pick Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, starring Girish Karnad and the iconic Smita Patil, produced by 5,00,000 farmers in Gujarat who contributed Rs.2 each. Manthan is India’s Matewan, or more than that. Based on a story by Verghese Kurien, the father of the White Revolution in India, the film is a wonderful documentary about farmers, workers, lovers, landlords, and a country struggling with its messy social realities. Manthan (1976) is approaching its 50th anniversary. Here’s an exhaustive essay by Harish S. Wankhede on the classic, which offers a nuanced take on caste, patriarchy, rural development, and the idea of a workers’ cooperative—an idea that continues to power India’s worker and peasant movements.

Read the essay and let us know what you think. Also, please do watch some of the films mentioned here—most of them are available for free on platforms like YouTube, Kanopy, etc. If they are not easily available, you know what to do!

Wishing you a lovely day,

For Frontline,

Jinoy Jose P.

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