It’s often forgotten in the whirlwind of grilled hot dogs and sparklers but Labor Day was originally meant to celebrate well…labor and the hard working folks who perform it. So this year along with the mandatory barbecue and fireworks show, consider brushing up on the history of the workers movement with one of the following films. (And remember to tip your server!)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Directed by John Ford and based on John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the story of the Joad family. After losing their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the Joads make an arduous journey across the west to California where they become migrant workers-and find their troubles have just begun. Starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two including Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and Best Director for Ford. It’s also widely considered one of the best movies ever made.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Based on the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name, this is the epic chronicle of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a hard scrabble close knit clan living in South Wales where the family members work in the coalfields. Over time disputes between the mine’s owners and workers as well as environmental despoliation from the coalfields tear apart the family and destroy the once idyllic village in which they’ve lived. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor.
Norma Rae (1979) Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae tells how its title character (played by the indomitable Sally Field) becomes a union organizer at the local textiles firm after her health and that of her co-workers is compromised. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two including Best Original Song and Best Actress; prompting Field’s immortal “You like me! You really like me!” acceptance speech for her second Oscar win for Places in the Heart. That quote was, in fact, a reference to dialogue in Norma Rae.
Silkwood (1983) Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Graduate) and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and union activist who died under extremely suspicious circumstances at the same time she was investigating alleged criminal behavior the plutonium plant where she worked. Silkwood was nominated for five Academy awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay
Made in Dagenham (2010) Directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. The strike was prompted by sexual discrimination against its female employees who demanded equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike it was nominated for four BAFTA awards including best supporting actress for Richardson and Outstanding British Film.
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