Those are conventional pursuits to mark the federal holiday honoring American workers, but it would also be fitting to watch one or more of these films.
I’m starting with The Grapes of Wrath, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel from 1940 that was directed by John Ford.
The Grapes of Wrath also stars terrific actors with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, Jane Darwell as Ma and John Carradine as Casey, to name a few. Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her performance, and John Ford won an Oscar for directing.
Also worth mentioning is the cinematography by Gregg Toland, which is about as good as it gets – after all, Toland shot Citizen Kane, too. The stark black and white images in the film beautifully complement the bleak storyline as the Joad family packs up and leaves the Depression-era dustbowl for the chance at a better life. The images are indelible.
The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the United States under the National Film Registry.
I also have a soft spot for the 1979 film Norma Rae. Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae Webster, a North Carolina textile mill worker who worked to unionize her factory. The film, which is directed by Martin Ritt, is based on the life story of a woman named Crystal Lee Sutton. There is a lot of drama and danger in this narrative.
Finally, I have to mention Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., which is also a classic. Forget the genre, it’s a great story. You might say that this film transcends genre.
Kopple’s film documents a 1973 coal miners’ strike against the Brookside Mine of the Eastover Mining Company. The mine is located in Harlan County, Kentucky, hence the film title Harlan County, U.S.A. This film, too, is an Oscar winner, and the filmmaker spent years with the miners and their families, which gives her an insider’s perspective and lends the film a tone of authenticity that is hard to capture without developing a relationship with the participants and letting the story unfold without forcing it too much.
Especially if you are drawn to Harlan County, U.S.A., make a note on your calendar to catch The Last Mountain, which will open at a/perture on October 4th. I’ll have more to say about this documentary recording a West Virginia community’s efforts to stop mountain top removal before it opens. There is an interesting section of the film that deals with labor issues.