Barbara Kopple, with a team of fellow documentarians, returns to the striking life in this Oscar winner about the union workers of a Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota who buck up against the corporate headquarters’ desire to cut their wages and benefits despite escalating profits. American Dream is the reality of workers in the post-Reagan era, and it isn’t pretty. Unfortunately, we’re still in the thick of it.
Michael Moore’s much-celebrated debut film, which set him on an invaluable career course as the fearless, ever-cynical, derisive antidote to corporate-owned media monopolies. Each of his films is a truthful speaking to power (however he might’ve juggled facts to make them funnier), and in Roger and Me he analyzes the impoverishment of his hometown of Flint, Michigan, in the profit-earning wake of layoffs and factory shutdowns. Riotous and unsettling.
Don’t be fooled by the ad art, which features Sally Field leaping and beaming like a cheerleader. Her character, Norma Rae, is a poor, uneducated factory worker who’s had children with men she barely knew; Field looks justifiably wan and sweaty through most of the film. Salvation comes in the form of a Jewish Brooklyn union organizer (Ron Leibman). Forget romance; Norma Rae is all about workers’ politics. Field won her first Oscar for her performance.
Bicycle Thieves (1949) A worker’s horror story: a postwar Rome father obtains a rare job that’s contingent on him having a bicycle; soon enough, his vehicle is stolen, and he and his son go searching for it—in a devastated city filled with bicycles. The great Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves (often mistitled as The Bicycle Thief) by Vittorio De Sica is an unsentimental heartbreaker.
John Ford does John Steinbeck’s dust bowl epic, and does it with little condescension and no romanticism to speak of. Did Hollywood ever before make poor people look this real? The Grapes of Wrath was stark and truthful enough to warrant a boycott call from banks and farming corporations, and its unionizing stance was forceful enough to get Ford, of all people, investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee years later. With Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine.