Good Labor Day Movies

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Films to Watch on Labor Day

Labor Day is observed on the first Monday of September, and its impact on Americans can be measured in a number of different ways. For many, it’s a day to relax and maybe throw a party. For others, it’s time to enjoy the kickoff of the NFL and NCAA seasons. And for women–especially those of high society–it’s the last time one can wear white without being made fun of. I, on the other hand, always use the holiday as an excuse to watch some good Labor Day movies.

What you might not know is that the creation of Labor Day started with bloodshed. Following the tragic events of the Pullman Strike in 1894, where conflicts between labor unions and railroads resulted in 13 deaths, President Grover Cleveland decided to improve labor relations at all costs. Only six days after the strike ended, Labor Day was signed into law and proclaimed a national holiday.

In honor of the continual struggle between the working man (and woman) and the corporations, I present this list of the top Labor Day movies. The next time you’re sitting in your cubicle bitching about you job, think about these movies and realize just how lucky you have it.

Speaking of lucky, there’s a little thing called Netflix that’s a real boon to movie fans. You can sign up for a low monthly fee and have movies delivered right to your door, or you can choose to watch them online or on your favorite mobile gadget. They offer over 100,000 titles ranging from movie classics to exploitation cinema. Why not give them a try? If Jimmy Hoffa were still alive, I’m sure he would be a member.

Norma Rae (1979) – Sally Field captured her first Best Actress Oscar for portraying Norma Rae Webster, a North Carolina textile worker who tires of her low pay and lousy work conditions and teams up with a union organizer (Ron Leibman) from New York. Beau Bridges co-stars as Norma’s disapproving husband, and Pat Hingle is her doomed father. Based on the real-life tale of Crystal Lee Sutton and directed by Martin Ritt.

F.I.S.T. (1978) – An early leading man turn from Sylvester Stallone, the film revolves around the frequently violent battles between the Federation of Inter State Truckers (FIST) and the money-hungry corporations. As Johnny Kovak (Stallone) rises from a disgruntled dock worker to a player within the union leadership, he increasingly finds himself forced to make decisions that compromise his morals. Loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa and the rise of the Teamsters Union. Stallone co-wrote the script with Joe Eszterhas, and the fine supporting cast includes Rod Steiger, Peter Boyle, Kevin Conway, and (oddly enough) a teenage Anthony Kiedis.

The Replacements (2000) – While most films about troubles between labor and management side with the former, this football comedy shows the striking players to be nothing more than greedy jackasses. The real heroes are the replacement players, and nobody personifies this more than Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a washed-up college quarterback who gets one more shot at the big time. Gene Hackman is his crusty coach, and John Favreau plays a SWAT member turned linebacker.

Silkwood (1983) – The true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), a worker for Kerr-McGee in the 1970s who died mysteriously while investigating unsafe workplace conditions. Streep predictably disappears into her character, and she’s backed up by fine performances from Kurt Russell and Cher (who received an Oscar nomination). The scene where Karen sets off alarms for dangerously high radiation levels is especially harrowing.

On the Waterfront (1954) – Nominated for 12 Oscars (it won eight), this Elia Kazan film stars Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer who now serves as a dockworker under the employ of the sinister Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Always willing to look the other way when illegal activities occur, he’s spurred to action by the appearance of the sister (Eva Marie Saint) of a recently murdered co-worker. A powerful film filled with great performances, On the Waterfront is a must-see for anyone who only remembers Brando as an overweight weirdo.

Hoffa (1992) – While the critics were split on Danny DeVito’s direction and Jack Nicholson’s performance as famed Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, the film remains a thorough look at Hoffa’s rise to power, his imprisonment, and his mysterious disappearance in the summer of 1975. The supporting cast includes J.T. Walsh, Armand Assante, John C. Reilly, and Kevin Anderson. A failure at the box office, it’s still recommended for fans of Nicholson or those with an interest in the Teamsters.

The Molly Maguires (1970) – Prior to directing Norma Rae, Martin Ritt helmed this film about Irish coal miners fighting back against substandard working conditions in 19th century Pennsylvania. After a number of cases of sabotage, the Pinkerton Detective Agency brings in fellow Irishman James McFarland (Richard Harris) to infiltrate a secretive group known as the Molly Maguires. But McFarland’s job won’t be an easy one, as he falls for a local woman and must overcome the suspicions of the likely leader of the Maguires, Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery). Another box office failure that’s worth a look for its depictions of labor struggles from days gone by.

Brassed Off (1996) – Labor issues exists all over the globe, and this well-acted film depicts events in the United Kingdom during the mid-1990s. Gloria (Tara FitzGerald) is hired by British Coal to return to her hometown of Grimley and determine if the coal pits–the town’s lifeblood–should remain open. In the process, she joins a brass band comprised of local coal workers and resumes a romance with a childhood sweetheart (Ewan McGregor). Pete Postlethwaite plays the band’s earnest conductor, Danny, a man trying to hold things together despite poor health, a clinically depressed son, and the imminent collapse of the town.

Matewan (1987) – Set in the hills of West Virginia during the 1920s and inspired by a true story, this John Sayles’ film details the attempts of coal miners to form a union in spite of pressure from their bosses. Chris Cooper is the union organizer who comes to the small town to make a difference, and the supporting cast is bolstered by James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Stathairn, and Bob Gunton. The film climaxes with a gunfight, which is made even more powerful thanks to the relentless tension created by writer/director Sayles.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) – No, not the 1973 porno. I’m talking about the 1941 comedy about a department store owner (Charles Coburn) who gets wind that his employees are trying to unionize and decides to go undercover as a shoe clerk. Before you know it, he’s falling in love, hanging out with a fellow clerk (Jean Arthur), and starting to sympathize with the opposition. Coburn received an Oscar nomination for his role, and it marked the first of three times that he would team up with Jean Arthur on-screen.

The next time September rolls around, watch one or more of these good Labor Day movies and reflect on how easy you’ve got it. Unless, of course, you work in retail or fast food. If that’s the case, go ahead and complain…you’ve earned the right.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 19th, 2011 at 5:52 pm and is filed under Good Movies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Good Labor Day Movies”

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March 8, 2012

John Clifton

One of the early uses of the term “red neck” came from union strikes in West Virginia, where Union members (both white, black, and otherwise) wore red bandanas around their necks to show solidarity. It’s a far cry from the meaning the term has today.

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