Labor Day isn’t only an excuse to barbecue, procrastinate on homework, or seize your last opportunity to wear your best white ensemble. According to the U.S. Department Labor, it is a day “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” and is a “yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” As you prepare for your three-day weekend, consider getting in the original spirit of the holiday by checking out some of these great movies about work and working.
Directed by Barbara Koppel, this Oscar-winning feagure-length documentary follows the activities of coal miners and their families striking against the Brookside mine in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973. This film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1991 and was voted one of the top 5 documentaries of all time by the International Documentary Association.
Starring Sally Field, this film depicts a factory worker who becomes involved in a labor union due to the poor health conditions at the factory where she works. The film was based on real-life union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton who was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in North Carolina for trying to organize a union. Her last action at the plant–depicted memorably in Norma Rae–was writing the word “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her coworkers to turn off their machines in solidarity before she was physically removed by police. Sally Fields won the Academy Award for Best Actress for this role and the film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2011.
Although it’s a more light-hearted look at the plight of the worker, Nine to Five is one of my all-time favorite movies that also happens to feature two of my favorites– Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda. This film is a comedic look at how three working women get even with their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical” boss (played by Dabney Coleman) and manage to enact real, positive change in the workplace.
Winner of 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor, this John Ford picture tells the story of the Morgan family, a Welsh mining family living in South Wales Valleys in the 19th century
Let’s forget for a moment Elia Kazan’s association with the Hollywood Blacklist and his history of ‘naming names’ and appreciate this beautiful film. Focusing on dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), the film concerns union violence and corruption on the waterfront of New Jersey. The film won 8 academy awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director. It was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1989.
In this satirical comedy written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp struggles against the modern industrialized world with hilarious results. This film was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1989.
Paul Schrader’s directorial debut starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keittel concerns three Detroit auto workers who are motivated by financial troubles and dissatisfaction with both their management and union leadership to rob a safe at union headquarters.
Both documentaries focus on the struggles of farm workers and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). The Fight in the Fields explores the history of the UFW and its founder Cesar Chavez and includes newsreel footage of the groundbreaking 1965 Delano grape boycott. The Wrath of Grapes is an UFW production and takes a closer look at the struggles of farmworkers in commercial grape orchards. Notably, the UNT Special Collections Department holds the collection of Wrath producer, director, and activist Lorena Parlee.
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