Screenshot by NPR
The image is iconic: Sally Field standing atop a worktable in a noisy textile factory in Martin Ritt’s 1979 workplace drama. Norma Rae.
Her Norma Rae Wilson has just been fired for causing trouble at the factory, the sheriff comes to take her to jail, and she brandishes a piece of cardboard on which she has scribbled only one word: “UNION” .
All eyes in the factory are on her as, one by one, her co-workers, many of whom are angry and alienated by her activism, shut down their machines in support.
For a long time, the silence is deafening – a cinematic portrait of working-class solidarity that 1970s audiences found moving, at least in part because it was so rare.
Could this solidarity speak to today’s Hollywood, where strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) have left the film industry reeling as it finally recovers from the pandemic?
And could this also explain why an August Gallup poll found that the public was solidly behind writers (72%) and actors (67%) in their struggles with the studios?
Demonizing unions as anti-American
Since the early days of Hollywood, film producers have demonized unions, both on and off screen. Even in cartoons like Disney’s Black and White Alice’s eggplant (1925), which depicts a decidedly Soviet “little red Henski”, fresh off a train from Moscow, inciting a strike among Alice’s previously happy chickens.
Walt Disney, an openly anti-communist, was still beating this drum two decades later when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that he believed the film industry was being taken over by the communists.
“I don’t believe it’s a political party,” he told the committee. “I think it’s an un-American thing. And what bothers me the most is that they are able to go into these unions and take over and represent to the world that one group of people who are in my factory, who I know are 100 percent good Americans… support all these ideologies. And they don’t. And I think they really should be eliminated. and have shown as they are, so that all the good free causes of this country, all the liberals who are truly American, may disappear without this taint of communism.”
Disney wasn’t the only movie mogul seeking to counter union organizers in the industry’s early days. Louis B. Mayer of MGM told his biographer that one of the ideas behind the 1927 creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the group that hands out the Academy Awards, was to encourage actors , directors and designers to think for themselves. not as workers, but as artists, so that they do not join with Hollywood technicians in forming unions.
Duel visions of work during the blacklist
All this, while Hollywood continued to produce films that portrayed union organizers as communists and union bosses as gangsters.
No one did this with more urgency than Elia Kazan in 1954. At the water’s edge. Two years earlier, at the height of the Hollywood blacklist, which barred employment to any worker suspected of having subversive inclinations, Kazan had named names at HUAC. Vilified by many in the industry for destroying careers in this way, he proposed At the water’s edge as a rebuttal of sorts, with hero Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) portrayed as noble for testifying against corrupt union leaders.
A more assertive portrait of unionization, Salt of the earth was also released in 1954. A story of Mexican American miners and their wives fighting against prejudice and unfair labor practices. The film was created outside the studio system, its producer Paul Jarrico said, by artists who could no longer work inside it. he.
“One of the reasons why we did Salt of the earth after we were blacklisted,” he recalled years later, “it was for committing a crime worthy of punishment.”
The film, in which real miners and their wives essentially reenact their own 15-month struggle, is considered a classic today, even though the major studios prevented its wide release in the 1950s by threatening to boycott the theaters that played it.
And what was the most typical studio portrait of labor relations at the time? — Doris Day, a factory worker, lobbies for seven and a half cents more an hour in the 1957 film version of the Broadway musical. The pajamas game.
These were working relationships played for laughs with singing and dancing, although the laughs may have been sour for studio executives in the 1960s. That’s when actors and writers struck together for the last time. (Oddly enough, the head of the actors’ union who called this strike was Ronald Reagan, who would later campaign against “big unions” as president.)
Independent filmmakers side with unions
Regardless, there haven’t been many wacky films about work for a while. But in the decades since, Hollywood has never stopped making films about union corruption – ever since Paul Schrader’s film Blue collar (1978) with Detroit auto workers Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel revealing the malfeasance of their union when they try to steal from it, like Martin Scorsese. The Irishman (2019) about a hitman who claimed to have killed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.
Yet with the decline of the studio system, independent filmmakers began to explore stories of labor centered on the little guy, for example in the coal mining documentary. Harlan County, United States. (1976), or in John Sayles’ mining drama Matewan (1987) set half a century earlier. James Earl Jones had to fight in this matter, not only with management, but also with the guys in the mine. He could ignore their racial invectives, but bristled at being called “scabs.” And union organizer Chris Cooper backed him up.
“You are not men for this coal company, you are equipment,” he told the miners gathered to hear his pitch. “They’ll use you until you burn out, or break down, or get buried under a falling slate. And then they’ll get a new one. And they don’t care what color it is or from where it is. it comes from.”
Take inspiration from the elders
Now, a couple of things are worth noting. The first is that stories of strikes date back at least to ancient Greece. In 411 BC, Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata war-weary Greek wives went on a sex strike to force their husbands to negotiate peace (a scenario adapted by Spike Lee in his 2015 comedy). Chi-Raq on gang wars in Chicago).
Also note that this genre is more common abroad than in the United States. Sergei Eisenstein arguably started with his 1925 silent epic Strike, a clever piece of big-screen Soviet propaganda about class war between virtuous workers and vicious overlords. Foreign film stars have long embraced working-class sagas, from Marcello Mastroianni to Italian neo-realist drama The organizer (1963), to Gérard Depardieu in the French costume epic Germinal (1993).
In England, while Ken Loach was creating social-realist working-class dramas like Bread and roses (2000), and Sorry we missed you (2019), a whole subgenre of working-class comedy arises around him: former steelworkers from The full Monty (1997), unemployed musicians Brewed (1996), queer activists raising money for striking miners Pride (2014).
But another thing to note is that if money is the measure of these films, the studios win. Star-studded gangster epics are a successful genre, and no matter how much audiences are inclined to support the little guy, human interest sagas can’t compete commercially.
Not even when we give them their fill Little Mermaid-treatment by composer Howard Ashman and lyricist Alan Menken, as News was in 1992. Their hard-hitting, lively film set the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899 to music, with Christian Bale leading a star-studded cast including Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall and Ann-Margret. But even with a surprisingly modest production budget of $15 million, the film flopped, earning less than $3 million at the box office for Disney, among all studios.
However, we cannot accuse the studio of burying it. Twenty years later, Disney’s stage version of News has played more than a thousand performances on Broadway and toured across the country, all because this central story of the little guy against the world is always powerful, whether it involves David and Goliath, or the workers and the bosses.
Or… artists and studios.
Edited by Rose Friedman
Audio story produced by Isabella Gomez
Digital story produced by Beth Novey