Snowpiercer the film
Snowpiercer the film
Image: Supplied

This week saw the annual celebration of Workers Day and what better excuse to look at some of cinema history’s best odes to the power of workers to remind the capitalist machine of their pivotal role as the cogs that keep it functioning. With AI creating fears that workers may soon be replaced by robots and other tools, here are three films about working class struggles across time that remind us of their sometimes depressingly relevant struggles for dignity, recognition and fair treatment.


Matewan - YouTube

Few modern American directors have been as sympathetic to the plight of working people’s struggles as John Sayles, whose multi-character, intertwining plot dramas often tackle burning social issues through humanist and complicated character-fuelled narratives.

Filmed in the West Virginia environs where its 1920 set story takes place, this urgent and painfully relevant drama from 1987 is classic Sayles, from a period in the 1980s when he was at the peak of his powers. Starring regular Sayles collaborators Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, featuring a strong contribution from the legendary James Earl Jones, and an appearance by indie folk musician Will Oldham, the film tells the familiar, bittersweet tale of the struggle by coal workers to unionise in order to obtain better pay and treatment from mine bosses in Matewan county.

Initially divided by petty issues of race and xenophobia, the increasingly beleaguered workers come to realise that if they’re to have a chance at success, they need to unite as a class who, as Marx famously reminded us, have nothing to lose but their chains.

It’s beautifully shot with quiet artistry by the incomparable Haskell Wexler, and driven by Sayles’ distinctive ear for dialogue as well as his careful construction of individual characters within their broader symbolic representation as a class. Political without resorting to didacticism, engaging without being preachy, it’s ultimately a moving tribute to a brief moment in American history, when workers were almost able to use their power within the machine to make it work for them.



Bread and Roses - YouTube

The undisputed master of working class drama, British director Ken Loach, ventured to the US for this sometimes admittedly preachy but effective drama about the struggles of Los Angeles, predominantly migrant worker janitors to form a union.

Filmed in Spanish and English the film follows the journey of migrant worker Maya (Pilar Padilla) who together with her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) endures horrible abuse at the hands of her bosses in her work as a janitor. When the fed up sisters decide to fight back and organise the janitors into a union, they meet union organiser Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) whose dedication to their struggle is complicated when he finds himself falling for Maya.

Committed to revealing the terrible conditions under which so many silent and ignored human beings work to keep offices and other spaces spotless, the film makes its necessary and uncomfortable political realities with sometimes heavy-handed pointedness. It manages to succeed as a call for understanding and a justification for the actions of its characters that will make you think twice the next time you see someone clearing your office bin. Loach is too clear-headed an activist director to allow the potentially schmaltzy complications of the love story between Maya and Sam get in the way of urgent issues. He’s also not a left-wing diehard ideologist that he can’t recognise the realities of what’s needed to achieve the goals of better treatment and fair pay.

By the end of the film the questions of whether the janitors will realistically achieve their aims and what might happen to Maya and Sam remain open-ended. As in life, there are no easy answers. Loach reminds us that it doesn’t mean we should be afraid of asking and exploring difficult questions about the relationship between workers and the injustices of the system they’re expected to serve without complaint.



Snowpiercer - Rent or buy from Apple TV +

Before he won the Oscar for 2019’s Parasite, a dark satire of economic inequality in South Korea, director Bong Joon Ho explored similar themes to more fantastical effect in this singular mix of dystopian fantasy and high octane action.

Adapted from a French graphic novel, the film is set in 2031 after a catastrophic climate event, leaves the entire world frozen and everyone dead, except for those who live aboard the Snowpiercer train.  Snowpiercer has for 18 years sped around the world, creating its own economy and class system on board, dividing the front-living haves from the back, hard-slogging have nots who keep the train going with little to show for their efforts other than their continued survival.

Led by the righteously pissed off Curtis (Chris Evans) a group of lower class back-end workers decide to fight back and lead a revolution towards the front of the train, where they will finally be able to negotiate a more equitable sharing of wealth between all of the passengers.

Each new section of the train offers a new, surreal world for the workers to experience as they make their bloody, fatal but inevitable way to the front to confront the man in charge and get what they feel they deserve.

Often absurd but always thrilling and distinctive, Ho’s thinly veiled metaphor about class inequality, capitalist greed and totalitarianism works on both the political and genre levels to offer one of the most unique action experiences in recent cinema history.


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