Noe Valley Voice May 2005

Screen and Screen Again!
Films That Feed the Union Spirit

By David O'Grady

Nutraceutical Corporation, owners of Real Food Company on 24th Street, should have gone to the movies before dismissing employees around Labor Day 2003. They might have learned a lesson from the textile mill owners who drove Sally Field to brandish a "Union" sign in the 1979 film Norma Rae.

Whether Real Food was union-busting or just renovating the store is now in the hands of the National Labor Relations Board. (A ruling is expected this summer.) Meanwhile, neighborhood residents continue to feel the loss of a dedicated organic grocer in Noe Valley. We may be going hungry, but the following films about working men and women can feed the flagging union spirit.

Norma Rae in L.A.

In the overlooked Bread and Roses (2000), a Latino urban version of Norma Rae, the heroine Maya, played by Pilar Padilla, is a resourceful illegal immigrant who escapes her "coyotes" to join her sister as a non-union office janitor in Los Angeles. While cleaning an office, she runs into Sam, a trespassing labor organizer played by Adrian Brody, as he flees from building security. On impulse, Maya helps Sam escape, and soon their mutual ideals--and attraction--turn into a partnership to unionize the workers against all odds.

If at times a bit naïve about the challenges of unionizing, Bread and Roses doesn't flinch at the harsh realities faced by undocumented workers caught in the union-management crossfire. In one blistering scene, Maya confronts her older sister for betraying their efforts to unionize. But Maya's righteousness turns to despair as she learns of the terrible sacrifices her sister has made to keep the family afloat. It will take all of Maya's pluck, and a bit of deviousness, to protect those she loves.

War in West Virginia

Independent film director John Sayles tapped the dark and often forgotten Appalachian coal mine wars of the 1920s to create Matewan (1987). His fictional account follows labor organizer Joe Kenehan, played by Chris Cooper, who arrives in a West Virginia company town to find the coal mine bosses engaged in race-baiting, economic exploitation, and union sabotage.

Joe forges a tenuous peace among the local, immigrant, and African-American workers to organize a strike and join the union. The coal-mining company fights back, threatening to evict families from their homes, until the town sheriff stands up to the company's henchmen. Hostilities mount, and Joe's hopes for a non-violent resolution fade as both sides dig in for the inevitable bloody showdown.

Despite the bleak story, Matewan's sepia-toned cinematography and strong performances from Cooper, James Earl Jones, and David Strathairn make this a film to see.

"We're the People That Live"

If ever there were a required film for Californians, it would be the dust bowl epic The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Director John Ford's classic adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel gave Henry Fonda the role of a lifetime.

Fonda plays Tom Joad, an ex-convict returning to the farm in Oklahoma who finds that the bank has taken what's left of his family's dried-up claim. Forced on the road to California, Tom and Ma Joad help their clan survive dust bowl camps, company farm exploitation, and anti-worker hostility from corporate thugs.

Though the film is not as strident as Steinbeck's book, it's a miracle The Grapes of Wrath was made at all, given the subject. Steinbeck is reported to have said when he saw the film that it helped him believe his own words. Viewers will believe it, too, when they watch the famous scene of the Joad family rolling into its first Okie camp, confronting one grim, lanky face after another. Climaxed by two of the most famous soliloquies in film history--Tom Joad's visionary "I'll be there" and Ma Joad's pragmatic "We're the people that live"--The Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece.

Touring South America by Motorcycle

The motorcycle in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)--a much-loved but temperamental Norton--gives up the ghost early, but the story is worth the trip in this coming-of-age, buddy-road movie. The fact that one of the young men will become the famous "Che" Guevara puts a slant on the film that depends on your feelings about the controversial revolutionary. Regardless, actors Gael Garcia Bernal as Guevara and Rodrigo De la Serna as his friend Alberto Granado movingly depict the journey Ernesto "Che" Guevara recorded in his diary.

It's 1952, and the guys, both medical students leaving Buenos Aires for an assignment at a leper colony in the Peruvian Amazon, decide to take the long way getting there. Soon their quest for girls and adventure turns to deeper issues as they discover the economic and political plight of modern South America.

The effect on Guevara is profound, as revealed in one scene where he and Alberto arrive at Machu Picchu. Marveling at this monument to South America's past, Guevara contemplates the force that may be necessary to achieve a better future. But ideology mainly rides in the back seat of the story. Like any good road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries is about the journey, not the destination.

The Tramp in the Machine

The last film to feature Charlie Chaplin's beloved Tramp character, Modern Times (1936) is a poignantly funny critique of the assembly-line age, which speaks to adults and children alike. A literal cog in the works at the local factory, the Tramp one day meets a homeless young woman, played by Chaplin's then-wife Paulette Goddard, who has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. The Tramp generously takes the rap for the theft, and when he gets out of jail, makes a new life with his grateful sweetheart.

But instead of living happily ever after, the Tramp is repeatedly jailed for various offenses, all hilarious and unintentional, including hitting a police officer with a brick during a factory lockout. The only refuge for the couple turns out to be, fittingly enough, a job as entertainers at a neighborhood restaurant.

While Chaplin makes light of modern indignities with some of the most famous bits in movie history (being force-fed by an automated lazy susan, tumbling through giant gears unscathed), he also illustrates that the rights of the individual are as sacred as laughter.