Episode 165: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part II): The Rare Pro-Worker Narrative

Sally Field in 1979's Norma Rae. (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection)

[Music]

Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. We have no commercials, no billionaire benefactors that we know of, because we are completely listener funded and cannot thank you all enough for that.

Adam: Yes, if you haven’t, please support us on Patreon, it’s very much appreciated, it does help keep the episodes themselves free and keeps the show sustainable. Also, if you could rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, that’s very much appreciated, and as always, check out Bonfire for our merchandise, shirts, tote bags, mugs, what have you, it helps also support the show and also makes you look cool because you’re with the coolest podcast in the world. I believe that one marker of a cool podcast is they tell you they’re cool.

Nima: (Laughs.) I like how your voice made that a question at the end.

Adam: I don’t know. I don’t know what’s cool anymore. I’m old. I have a kid.

Nima: It’s definitely a Citations Needed tote bag.

Adam: Yeah, clearly.

Nima: This is also our season five finale of Citations Needed. We’ll be taking a little summer break after this episode, spending some time with our families and gearing up for next season, season six, which will begin in September.

A white-collar worker wrestles with whether to accept a promotion or help his co-workers organize. Salt miners stand up to the company that’s taken over their town. A factory worker exposes her employer’s union-busting tactics.

Adam: Stories like these represent something we don’t often see in Hollywood: Unions and labor organizers as the good guys. Not as egomaniacs, zealots, radical left-wingers, mafiosos or thugs or grifters, but as heroes willing to risk their health, homes, and livelihoods for the greater good.

Nima: This is in stark contrast to the anti-union depictions in pop culture we explored on Citations Needed in Episode 164, part one of this two-part series on depictions of labor and unionization in film and television. On the previous episode, we discussed Hollywood’s emphasis on corruption in labor organizing, focusing noticeably on depictions of bloated bureaucracy, organized crime, and autocratic union bosses in films like On the Waterfront from 1954, Blue Collar from 1978, and The Irishman from 2019.

Adam: This week, in part two, we’re going to address the inverse of that, looking at the rare but nontrivial examples of pop film that celebrates the accomplishments of labor movements, centers beleaguered workers with everything to lose, and positions abusive employers as the villains, while embracing themes of worker courage and heroism. While very often not perfect, these examples show that compelling, award-winning narratives can be crafted out of tales of collective action and collective bargaining.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine.

[Begin Clip]

Angela Allan: And I think the way that we see places like the New York Times or The Washington Post, how they’ve been covering unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks, that they already are casting them as having this kind of narrative flair, you know, so if Martin Ritt is like, ‘I was really inspired by Crystal Lee Sutton,’ people like Chris Smalls or Jaz Brisack feel like Norma Rae-esque figures. I think that does suggest that there’s an appetite for these victory stories in real life.

[End Clip]

Nima: So last episode, we discussed a number of films that kind of do this common trope, Adam, of unions are generally corrupt, certainly their leadership is, sometimes, you know, solidarity between workers is a good thing, the working man, the working woman, more occasionally than the man depicted in Hollywood, especially in the so-called Golden Era of Hollywood, that there can be power in workers banding together and finding solidarity together. But generally, unions, as they are depicted, are that of overbearing, autocratic, and certainly corrupt institutions, just as corrupt as the companies that they’re supposed to be organizing against.

Adam: Right. But let’s be honest, Hollywood, especially maybe in the ’40s and ’50s, and on to the ’60s and ’70s, less so I think today, but certainly decades ago, has left-wingers in it, has socialists, communists, fellow travelers et cetera, or bleeding-heart liberals, who empathize with unions, what have you. So obviously, there’s going to be some representations, pro-labor representation in Hollywood, that kind of slipped through the cracks, either because a director or writer is so established they can do whatever they want based on previous work or they’re indie films that are maybe outside the Hollywood studio production, which is definitely something we’re going to cover in this episode, but they still kind of get widespread releases based on critical acclaim or other independent vectors for success, if you will, or they’re just crypto, let’s be honest here, right? Much of people’s politics have to be crypto in certain ways, just by the nature of how popular culture works, by definition it must be popular, it must be broad, and the absolute biggest sin one can engage in is to have an agenda or a politics, that’s sort of seen as being declasse, that you can have message pictures where it’s say no to drugs or whatever, but you can’t have a message pictures that’s like down with capitalism. That’s too far. As you noted, legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn is credited with saying, “All they want is a story. If you have a message, send it by Western Union.” Of course, we argue in this episode that all movies have messages whether we want to or not, there’s no such thing as a non-message movie. And some of those films will have a message that is pro-labor in inclination, if not intent. So we’re excited to get into those today and talk about those and then talk to our guest about how they worked, what makes them work, and what we can learn from them.

Nima: Now, obviously, normal qualifier to start, Adam, this is a huge topic, we can’t cover every single labor film, even the good ones. There are incredible documentaries like Harlan County, USA, directed by Barbara Kopple. There are films like Warren Beatty’s Reds from 1981 about journalist John Reed and the chronicling of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia and John Sayles’ Matewan from 1987 about the 1920s coal miner strike in Matewan, West Virginia. There is stealth communist propaganda by Disney, Newsies from 1992. There’s the 2000 film directed by Ken Loach, Bread and Roses, about the struggle of poorly paid janitorial workers in LA and their fight for better working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s based on the very real Justice for Janitors campaign of the SEIU.

Warren Beatty in 1981’s Reds. (Paramount Pictures)

Adam: There is a very famous episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that is very pro-union propaganda. To give some context, one of the characters, who’s an alien, works at the bar of Deep Space Nine station, and is consistently abused and exploited by his brother, played by Quark, the scrupulous bar owner who we come to love. And he begins to talk about starting a union to demand more rights, which for the Ferengis is unheard of, since they’re, like, a race of hypercapitalists. In this clip, he’s discussing with two of his crewmates, Dr. Bashir and Miles O’Brien, about his frustrations with his boss and his desire to have collective bargaining.

[Begin Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]

Rom: Dr. Bashir, I’m glad you’re in. I need your help.

Dr. Bashir: Your ear acting up again?

Rom: My ear’s fine. I need some advice about…unions.

Dr. Bashir: Unions?

Rom: You said the other day I should form a union, so I did.

Dr. Bashir: Rom, I was speaking theoretically.

Rom: And I put your theory into practice! All of Quark’s employees have joined. We’re going to force Quark to treat us better. I hope.

Miles O’Brien: A union, huh? Good for you.

Rom: You know about unions?

Miles O’Brien: Who do you think led the Pennsylvania coal miners during the anthracite strike of 1902?

Rom: I have no idea.

Miles O’Brien: Sean Aloysius O’Brien.

Dr. Bashir: I didn’t know that.

Miles O’Brien: There’s a lot of things about my family you don’t know. Eleven months, those mines were closed. They didn’t open again until all the miners’ demands were met.

Rom: You mean we should force Quark to close the bar?

Dr. Bashir: Only as a last resort. If he’s reasonable about your requests, there’s no need to strike.

Miles O’Brien: Quark? Reasonable? Ha! Unlikely. You’ll have to strike. Mark my words. And when you do, you’ll have to be strong.

Rom: Just like Sean O’Brien.

Miles O’Brien: Exactly. You know, he had the biggest funeral in all of Western Pennsylvania.

Rom: Funeral?

Miles O’Brien: Mm. They fished his body out of the Allegheny River the week before the strike ended. 32 bullets he had in him. Or was it 34?

Dr. Bashir: Well, he died a hero.

Miles O’Brien: He was more than a hero! He was a union man!

[End Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Clip]

Adam: I think it’s funny that Miles O’Brien does this thing where he traces his lineage back, like, 400 years at this point.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah, when Pennsylvania existed.

Adam: Yeah, when people take their genealogy tests, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a descendant of King James II.’ I’m like, well, everyone’s a descendant of King James II at that point.

Nima: Hey, it works, even later in the episode, Rom even quotes from the Communist Manifesto, saying, “Workers of the world, unite.”

Adam: Right.

Nima: It is very exciting. Now, I must admit I am not the Star Trek scholar that you are, Adam, but I’m thrilled that we were able to get this one in. The episode is called “Bar Association,” directed by LeVar Burton, and aired originally on February 19, 1996. Just two days later on February 21, 1996, an episode of Sister, Sister aired called “Paper or Plastic” when one of the characters’ co-workers on the show working in a grocery store are going on strike to demand higher wages, and this episode of Sister, Sister is remarkable for its pro-union advocacy, as documented on Twitter a couple years ago by Diana Hussein, who is the comms director for the pro-worker group UNITE HERE! Everyone should absolutely check that out. They call the replacement workers scabs. They tell folks not to cross picket lines. It is really fantastic and kind of amazing that within the span of just three days, Deep Space Nine and Sister, Sister ran pro-union episodes.

Adam: An anomaly indeed. Our usual disclaimer here by the way, before we get into the films, there are spoilers to the films we will be discussing.

Nima: While on part one of this episode last week, we began in 1954 with On the Waterfront, we are going to return to that year to start off this episode but this time we’re going to talk about the film Salt of the Earth, again from 1954, directed by Herbert J. Biberman.

The story goes basically like this: Esperanza Quintero, played by Rosaura Revueltas, and her husband, Ramón, played by Juan Chacón, live with their two, and soon to be three, children in precarity in her home village — now the company town of Zinc Town, New Mexico. Ramón, a union miner for Delaware Zinc, is forced to work in the mines alone, a policy that only applies to Mexican-American, not white, miners, which creates extremely dangerous conditions of course. Ramón and other miners decide to strike for worker safety, and their wives encourage them to expand their demands, marking the beginning of an instrumental role that women will play in organizing for the rights of the miners’ union and the health and safety of their families.

Adam: During the strike, the company hires out-of-town strikebreakers, but they leave after seeing the size of the picket line. In one scene, the superintendent and an executive drive up to the picket line and speak manipulatively to Ramón, but Ramón doesn’t take the bait. Now keep in mind, this is 1954, the same year On the Waterfront came out. This is extremely based shit. So we’re gonna listen to that here.

[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

Alexander: Well, they’re like children in many ways. Sometimes you have to humor them, sometimes you have to spank them — and sometimes you have to take their food away. Here comes the one we were talking about. (Chuckles) He’s quite a character. Claims his grandfather once owned the land where the mine is now.

Ramon: Want to go up to your office, Mr. Alexander?

Alexander: Naturally. You think I parked here for a cup of coffee?

Ramon: You’re welcome to one.

Alexander: No thanks.

Ramon: The men would like to know who this gentleman is.

Alexander: That’s none of their affair.

Hartwell: That’s all right — it’s no secret. My name’s Hartwell. I’m from the company’s Eastern office.

Ramon: You mean Delaware?

Hartwell: No. New York.

Ramon: New York? You’re not the Company President by any chance?

Hartwell: No.

Ramon: Too bad. The men have always wanted to get a look at the President. But you’ve come out here to settle the strike?

Hartwell: Well, if that’s possible.

Ramon: It’s possible. Just negotiate.

Hartwell: Are we talking to a union spokesman?

Alexander: Not exactly. But I wish he were one. He knows more about mining than those pie-cards we’ve had to deal with. I mean it. I know your work record. You were in line for foreman when this trouble started. Did you know that? You had a real future with this company, but you let those Reds stir you up. And now they’ll sell you down the river. Why don’t you wake up, Ray? That’s your name, isn’t it, Ray?

Ramon: No. My name is Quintero. Mister Quintero.

Alexander: Are you going to let us pass or do I have to call the Sheriff?

Ramon: There’s nothing stopping you…

I was wrong! They don’t want Jenkins for general manager — they want me!

[End Salt of the Earth Clip]

Adam: Some context, the guy who says he isn’t the president is, in fact, the president.

Nima: President of the company, that’s right. Undercover Boss.

Adam: Ramón is soon arrested by the violent, racist police after confronting a scab he knows. At the same time, Esperanza goes into labor. The strike continues for months, and strikers and union locals from around the country provide food and other aid for the families. Later, the sheriff issues a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering the striking workers to stop picketing. At a meeting, one of the strikers’ wives offers a solution, to much derision and resistance, which we’re going to listen to in that clip here.

[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

Teresa: If you read the court injunction carefully you will see that it only prohibits striking miners from picketing. We women are not striking miners. We will take over your picket line. (Men laughing.) Don’t laugh. We have a solution. You have none. Brother Quintero was right when he said we’ll lose fifty years of gains if we lose this strike. Your wives and children too. But this we promise, if the women take your places on the picket line, the strike will not be broken, and no scabs will take your jobs. (Applause.)

[End Salt of the Earth Clip]

Theatrical release poster for Salt of the Earth, 1954. Pictured: Rosaura Revueltas.

Nima: Now, before the union members vote on whether to introduce the women into the picket line, as suggested, Esperanza insists that the women be allowed to vote, and the motion narrowly passes. People begin marching immediately, though some women’s husbands, including Esperanza’s, prohibit them from joining the picket line. But eventually Esperanza joins the picketers and is arrested herself, along with her children, other picketers, and their children. In jail, the women make demands for baby formula, bathroom access, and other necessities, mirroring those of the miners.

The children are released, and Ramón handles the housework while Esperanza is forced to stay in jail. Ramón, resentful of Esperanza’s growing independence, insists that the women have no chance of winning, but Esperanza maintains that they can outlast the company and criticizes her husband Ramon for treating her just as the bosses treat him.

[Begin Salt of the Earth Clip]

Esperanza: Have you learned nothing from this strike? Why are you afraid to have me at your side? Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?

Ramon: You talk of dignity? After what you’ve been doing?

Esperanza: Yes. I talk of dignity. The Anglo bosses look down on you, and you hate them for it. “Stay in your place, you dirty Mexican.” That’s what they tell you. But why must you say to me, “Stay in your place.” Do you feel better having someone lower than you?

Ramon: Shut up, you’re talking crazy.

Esperanza: Whose neck shall I stand on, to make me feel superior? And what will I get out of it? I don’t want anything lower than I am. I’m low enough already. I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go.

Ramon: Will you be still?

Esperanza: And if you can’t understand this you’re a fool because you can’t win this strike without me! You can’t win anything without me!

[End Salt of the Earth Clip]

Nima: Later, the company obtains an eviction order against the strikers, and the police start the process at the Quintero house. The strikers’ families defy the eviction order however, returning the Quinteros’ belongings to their home. Vastly outnumbered, the police leave, meaning the families have won the strike and that they can stay in their houses. Ramón thanks Esperanza for her work and for preaching a message of unity.

Adam: The film was produced by Independent Productions Corporation, founded by Simon Lazarus, Herbert J. Biberman and producer Paul Jarrico, both of whom were blacklisted at the time and used the company to hire other blacklisted filmmakers. Writer Michael Wilson had been blacklisted as well. Salt of the Earth was also produced in partnership with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers.

The story was based on the actual strike of 1951–1952 by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc. Two of the film’s cast members — Juan Chacón, who played Ramón, and Clinton Jencks, who played another character named Frank Barnes — were actually members of the union and strike participants. Chacón, in fact, was president of one of the union locals.

Nima: So yeah, this was basically a lefty labor-made film starring actual union organizers, past strikers as, you know, actors in the film. Now Unsurprisingly, the film Salt of the Earth had many powerful detractors. According to the American Film Institute, quote:

In February 1953, during filming, California Republican Representative Donald Jackson, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) from California, declared that [Salt of the Earth] was ‘deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds,’ and was ‘a new weapon for Russia.’

End quote.

Simon Lazarus, founder of the film’s production company, was called to testify before Jackson’s committee that same year, 1953, the year before Salt of the Earth was even released.

US entertainment unions opposed the film as well. IATSE and the Screen Actors Guild reportedly tried to halt production of the film for over a year, and director Biberman and producer Jarrico stated that they had hired people who had been effectively blacklisted by IATSE, including four Black workers — the assistant to the director, an assistant cameraman and two technicians — all of them excluded under IATSE’s Jim Crow policies.

On May 24, 1959, the New York Times reported that the United States Information Agency included Salt of the Earth on its list of movies that it refused to show overseas. The film however was subsequently re-released in the US in 1965.

Adam: Yeah, so if your film was too overtly pro union, centers race and racist cops, centers women’s liberation in the context of unionization, all a lot of bad stuff going on there. Hiring Black crew members. All that was very icky and so this movie was effectively thrown into a memory hole.

Nima: It was so un-American that it wouldn’t be shown overseas.

Adam: So un-American it is the only film ever to be blacklisted. Not a filmmaker, but the actual film, the only film ever to be blacklisted. Next up is Norma Rae from 1979. This is a more mainstream film, but one that has not so subtle politics, maybe slightly more subtle than the previous entry.

In the Southern rural town of Henleyville, single mother Norma Rae Webster, played by Sally Field, works with her parents in a textile mill under conditions threatening the health of her, her family, and her co-workers. To shut her quote-unquote “big mouth,” management gives Norma a promotion, which she initially accepts but eventually rejects after realizing that the modest raise isn’t worth betraying the rank and file, her friends or family. When New York-based labor organizer Reuben Warshovsky, played by Ron Leibman, comes into town to encourage the mill workers to unionize, the galvanized Norma Rae takes an increasingly active role in the pursuit of victory for the mill workers.

Sally Field and Ron Leibman in Norma Rae, 1979.

Nima: So Norma Rae, of course, is widely known as kind of a high watermark of labor depiction in films. It’s from 1979. If you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you can find it at your local library, you can stream it on Vimeo, you can probably pick up a DVD somewhere, I encourage you to do that, it is a fine film. But it really does mark this labor as shown in Hollywood as being a real hero’s journey. Also, similarly to Salt of the Earth, shone through this idea of powerful women being the kind of center of a story and moving, not only labor solidarity, but also women’s liberation and almost a feminist ideology that combines to really push the labor movement forward.

Adam: Yeah, though, as our guest notes, and we’ll talk about, its depiction of race is a bit simplistic and tokenizing. But that aside, let’s get into the breakdown of the film itself. The first scene we’re going to watch here is when the union organizer from New York, Reuben, knocks on Norma’s door, explaining that he’s a traveling labor organizer seeking a room to rent. Norma’s father Vernon denies Reuben’s request, stating that Reuben and the union are not welcome. So to start off, we’re going to play a clip where Norma has been making too many demands of management so management decides, which is a typical tactic, decides to give her a promotion, and basically turn her against her own co-workers. So let’s listen to that clip here.

[Begin Norma Rae Clip]

Norma Rae: Whatever it is, I didn’t do it.

Gardner: Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. “Give us a longer break.” “Give us more smokin’ time.” “Give us a Kotex pad machine.”

Norma Rae: Do it and I’ll shut up!

Gardner: Well, we’ll do better than that. We figure the only way to close that mouth is to hand you a promotion. You’re goin’ up in the world, honey.

Norma Rae: Yeah? How far and for how much?

Gardner: Well, we’re gonna put you on spot-checkin’.

Norma Rae: Well hell, it sure ain’t gonna make me any friends.

Gardner: It’ll make you another dollar and a half an hour.

[End Norma Rae Clip]

Nima: Now, Norma demands to be fired after realizing that this promotion is effectively a betrayal to her co-workers, and that you know, she should be fired instead of getting the raise. Later, Norma and one of her co-workers attend a Textile Workers’ Union of America meeting held by traveling organizer Reuben Warshovsky, in which Warshovsky evangelizes about the unifying potential of organizing.

[Begin Norma Rae Clip]

Reuben Warshovsky: Ladies and gentlemen, the textile industry in which you are spending your lives and your substance, and in which your children and their children will spend their lives and their substance, is the only industry in the whole of the United States of America that is not unionized. Therefore they are free to exploit you, to lie to you, to cheat you, and to take away from you what is rightfully yours. Your health. A decent wage. A fit place to work. I would urge you to stop them… by coming over to the room at the Golden Cherry Motel to pick up a union card and sign it. Yes, it comes from the Bible. “According to the tribes of your fathers ye shall inherit.” But it comes from Reuben Warshovsky: “Not unless you make it happen.” Thank you.

[End Norma Rae Clip]

Adam: So Reuben tours the factory with management. After Norma sees how he defends the workers, she seeks to partner with him and improve the union’s outreach, cutting through years of anti-union propaganda fed to the textile workers. It has a kind of city-boy-meets-country-girl flair, but it’s very well done.

As the labor organization attempts become more visible, the company retaliates. Management forces workers into longer shifts and posts a letter telling white workers that Black workers would use the union as a tool of control. Both of these tactics have dire consequences for the workers.

Management later attempts to fire Norma after she tries to copy the letter to send to the union, hoping to expose the company’s illegal union-busting tactics. In response, in what has become an iconic scene, Norma stands up on a worktable at the mill holding a sign that reads “UNION” as the workers turn off their mechanical looms in solidarity, one by one.

The company has Norma arrested for “disorderly conduct,” and Reuben bails her out. Norma is distraught, but Reuben is unfazed and used to hostility from police. He explains that this kind of institutional antagonism is a routine part of labor organizing, offering a glimpse into the ways that police and the state enact violence against unions. So let’s listen to that clip here.

[Begin Norma Rae Clip]

Reuben Warshowsky: It comes with the job.

Norma Rae: (Crying.)

Reuben Warshowsky: I saw a pregnant woman on a picket line get hit in the stomach with a club. I saw a boy get shot in the back. I saw a guy get blown to hell and back when he tried to start up his car in the morning. And you just got your feet wet on this one.

[End Norma Rae Clip]

Adam: Yeah, so spoiler alert — which in case you haven’t noticed this whole episode is — the risks pay off and the mill holds an election over whether to unionize, and the result is a victory for the union.

Nima: Norma Rae was quite faithfully based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a cotton mill worker at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sutton became active in union organizing after meeting Eli Zivkovich, on whom Reuben Warshovsky was modeled. Sutton was fired after copying a racist, anti-union letter posted on the company bulletin board and responded just as we see in Norma Rae: climbing onto a worktable, holding a sign reading “UNION” above her head. Unionization at J.P. Stevens took much more time than it did in its fictional counterpart, but it did happen nevertheless eventually in 1980.

TWUA flyer featuring labor organizer Crystal Lee Sutton, the inspiration for Norma Rae.

The film’s director, Martin Ritt, was known for his catalog of tales of the oppressed, such as the 1972 film Sounder, about Black sharecroppers during the Depression. Like the makers of Salt of the Earth, Ritt had been blacklisted himself in the 1950s, an experience he captured in the 1976 Woody Allen/Zero Mostel film The Front. He said this in 1986, quote, “I make the kind of films that not too many people get to make in this town, though sometimes I’ve had to take the risk myself,” end quote.

Adam: According to the American Film Institute, quote:

Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and United Artists turned down the project. As explained in a 25 Feb 1979 NYT article, Alan Ladd Jr., President at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., acquired it after Ritt convinced him that the film would be perceived as uplifting and not depressing…During negotiations with the studio, Ritt agreed to cut his salary in half to $250,000.

$250,000 is still a lot of money in 1979, so our hearts don’t bleed too much. But the point is to further demonstrate the friction filmmakers encounter when they do try to have pro union narratives, it requires them to, in this case, eat shit on half their salary.

Nima: Both Salt of the Earth, from 1954 and 1979’s Norma Rae depict unionization as going hand in hand with cross racial solidarity and the third film we’re going to discuss is no different. This is Sorry to Bother You from 2018.

Adam: The film was written and directed by Boots Riley, who has a history of activism in the Bay Area and has a history of pretty overtly left-wing politics, which of course, explains the politics of the film.

Sorry to Bother You tells the story of Cassius “Cash” Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who works, out of desperation, as a telemarketer for Oakland-based company called RegalView, where management repeatedly floats the abstract promise of a promotion. As Cassius’s co-worker Squeeze, played by Steven Yeun, hopes to start a union, Cassius ascends the ranks to become a handsomely paid and steadily promoted “power caller,” on the condition that he enthusiastically performs work far more grim than he could have possibly imagined.

Nima: So Sorry to Bother You certainly is one of the more ideological films that we are discussing in this two-parter, Adam. It is an allegory more than it is based on a true story or the, you know, story of a certain hero as emblematic of a movement. It is really a fantastical look at labor, at capitalism, and the horrors within those. So we’re going to break down some of the scenes from Sorry to Bother You.

At one point in the film Cassius somewhat reluctantly participates in a work stoppage organized by his coworker Squeeze and is called into the manager’s office, where his three supervisors offer the allure of a promotion to dissuade him from going any further, you can see parallels here to what happened to Norma Rae, right? We’ll give you a promotion if you just shut your mouth. Here is a clip from that scene from Sorry to Bother You.

[Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Cassius: All right, hey, I know you’re gonna threaten to fire me and go ahead, whatever, I don’t care anymore because we’re gonna take this fucking place down.

Johnny: (Laughs.) Pack your shit and get out.

Cassius: Well, fuck you and fuck you and fuck you! Fuck you!

Anderson: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Green. You’re starting to sound a little paranoid here. We’re the bearers of good news. Great news.

Johnny: Great motherfucking news.

Anderson: Great motherfucking news. Power caller.

Cassius: What the fuck?

Anderson: Yeah we just got the call. They think you’re A1 material, you’re going upstairs my compadre. Yes, you are getting a promotion. at 9am tomorrow morning. Do you have a suit?

Diana: Of course he does. Powerful, young, strong, intelligent, power caller.

Cassius: But they —

Anderson: Oh, God, they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do. You’re not going against their actions. All their issues are down here. Not up there. Two very different kinds of telemarketing.

Cassius: Okay. Um…

Anderson: This is your moment. Don’t waste it.

[End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Nima: Cassius soon discovers that as a power caller, he’ll be selling repugnant yet lucrative products from a company called WorryFree. The work stoppage has become a full-blown strike at this point, and Cassius tries to play to both labor and management, telling the workers trying to organize that he supports them quote-unquote “from the sidelines” while simultaneously reaping the financial rewards and class signifiers of his new position as a power caller.

[Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Salvador: Cassius? What’s up, man? Where you been? What’s up with the suit?

Cassius: I got promoted.

Squeeze: What does that mean? Are you a manager now?

Cassius: That means I’m a power caller now. About to be paid.

Squeeze: We’re all trying to get fucking paid. But we’re going to do it as a team. Are you on the team?

Cassius: Yeah, I guess I’m still on your little team but I’m playing from the bench. The bench where you sit and get your bills paid. You know, my uncle is about to lose his house.

Salvador: Cash, I’m Sorry about your uncle man, but they don’t mean sell out.

Cassius: I’m not selling you all out. My success has nothing to do with you. All right? You just keep doing whatever it is that you’re fucking doing and I’ll root for you from the sidelines and try not to laugh at that stupid smirk on your face.

[End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Nima: Later, Cassius is invited to an especially decadent party at the mansion of WorryFree executive Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer —

Adam: Who we now know was playing himself basically.

Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You, 2018.

Nima: The scene plays as a clear parody of the wealthy US tech executives, where Cassius realizes his role is to entertain them and be mocked by the white guests in attendance. At the mansion, Cassius discovers that Lift is experimenting with a horrific, grotesque way to improve the quote-unquote “efficiency” of WorryFree’s laborers, sanitized in a twee, Michel Gondry-style stop-motion video scene.

[Begin Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Neanderthal Woman: We study. WorryFree is carrying forward this lineage of natural developments that began in prehistoric times. We realized that human labor has its limitations and our scientists have discovered a way of chemical change to make humans stronger, more obedient, more durable, and therefore more efficient and profitable. We are proud to announce to our shareholders that a new day in human productivity is dawning.

[End Sorry to Bother You Clip]

Nima: Lift asks him to lead the workers, an offer that Cash is really surprised by, appalled by. Cassius then makes a series of appearances on morning and late-night talk shows to blow the whistle on WorryFree and what they’re doing. He implores people to call their representatives in Congress but soon realizes how ineffective that approach is.

Cash later joins the striking workers, who are beaten, tear gassed, and hit with cars by riot police. Not long after, the RegalView workers have successfully formed a union, and, in a more confrontational turn of events, WorryFree’s plans to improve worker output are used against the company itself.

Adam: The central conflict in the film, obviously it has sci-fi and fantasy elements, but the central conflict is about worker solidarity and the mechanisms with which management and capital and society in general uses to pick away at that solidarity, to dangle promotions in front of you, to use race to divide people, all the kinds of ways in which unionism is dissuaded, and the film was obviously a very pro-labor, pro-union film for that reason, and quite explicitly, which a lot of people found refreshing, and many of the critics at the time who praised the film noted that union and unionism as a plot point hadn’t really happened in some time, which is what made the film very refreshing for a lot of people, especially in the climate of increased union activity, which of course, has since been even more frequent. So it’s a movie that is explicitly a movie about labor and the ways in which labor and solidarity are eroded, and in that sense, I think it’s a very refreshing and positive depiction of unionism that we almost never see in contrast with, offline we were talking about, it’s the anti-Office Space.

Nima: Totally.

Adam: Because Office Space, you know, as funny as that movie is, as iconic as many of the lines have become, it’s like a lot of Mike Judge stuff, it’s deeply nihilistic, and very libertarian at its heart.

Nima: There’s no real solidarity, you have your buddies at work, but you only kind of have kinship with them to exact a little bit of revenge or, you know, things to make yourself feel better in the drudgery of work, but a lot of the scenes parallel with Sorry to Bother You like going into the office with the three managers who are going to assess your performance or whatever, there’s the Bob scene in Office Space, but the results are very different. The way out is very different. It is not about them coming together and forming a union. Unions are never discussed in Office Space, it’s just about this pitiful cubicle life, right? It was 1999 Mike Judge, it wasn’t a union-y time.

Adam: Yeah, without being too, again, we want to be careful not to be too prescriptive or literal minded — we understand that art doesn’t necessarily have to be a constant commercial for unionism — but I do think that there are politics that ooze out of these films, and there’s a certain political point that is being made, whether we want it to or not. And again, that was very much a marker of its time in the late ’90s. There’s a kind of slacker libertarianism that was descended at the time and I think that that maybe has changed a little bit or that’s not as attractive today, because I think we sort of see where that led us, this kind of end of history, whatever man mentality. I mean, of course, Mike Judge also made Idiocracy, which is a film we could do a whole episode on.

Nima: Indeed it’s slightly problematic.

Adam: What I view as a very pro soft eugenics or even hard eugenics film.

Nima: Totally.

Adam: At its core it and sort of dripping with misanthropy, which I think Mike Judge would even probably agree with

Nima: Yeah, I think that’s kind of the point of a lot of what he does. But to discuss labor in film more, we are now going to be joined by Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who also writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine. Angela will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.

[Music]

Nima: We are joined now by Angela Allan. Angela, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Angela Allan: It’s great to be here to talk.

Adam: Let’s begin by talking about Norma Rae, the quintessential labor sympathetic mainstream Hollywood film, film you wrote about in your excellent essay in The Atlantic. It has a lot going for it in terms of its kind of broad message of unionization as an avenue for racial solidarity while, as you note, the film itself lacks meaningful diversity, the Black characters are largely ornamental. It was still a fairly unique Hollywood message picture for the late ’70s, which by this point, the rest of the country, Hollywood has sort of begun to veer more right-wing, most notably Rocky, a racial disciplining film. I know it’s popular, I like it, but let’s be honest, its racial politics are pretty shitty. Let’s begin by talking about what makes Norma Rae work as an underdog story in a pro labor film, despite, as you note, this is not even really being the director’s objective, so he says, although I’m a little skeptical about that. What to you makes it work and what are some of the sort of lessons that can be taken away from what makes it work?

Angela Allan

Angela Allan: Yeah. So I would first say that I share your skepticism about this because I think Martin Ritt, the director, Norma Rae is from 1979, but he directed The Molly Maguires in 1970, which is obviously hugely about labor issues, and even I think his first film, Edge of the City is about labor. So it might be a little bit disingenuous for him to have said that. But at the same time, what Martin Ritt does claim is that he was mostly interested in Crystal Lee Sutton’s organizing work, and she’s, obviously, the basis for the character. He said, you know, it’s her story, not particularly the unions that he’s interested in. But I think even if we take him at his word for that, if we want to see this as a film that’s about interpersonal relationships as opposed to labor organizing, it’s a film that shows just how much Norma Rae’s private life can’t be disentangled from her labor life as a worker. And so it’s a film, I think, that’s largely about consciousness raising. She knows that her life has been hard, she knows that it’s because her job sucks, and she knows that it’s not satisfying. But there’s this kind of question about, well, what do you do about that? And so in the beginning of the film, it really kind of shows Norma Rae as the squeaky wheel who’s dissatisfied, who’s raising concerns with her boss, who they’re largely able to ignore her. So the narrative arc is more so well, how do you do something about that? And this is, as the plot goes, when she meets with the labor organizer, how do you go from being an individual voice to how do you work together with a collective to be able to do something? And I think where the underdog aspect of it comes in is this idea that it depends upon individual courage. So whether or not it makes the most idealistic version of an individual acting, I think, given the very real union busting tactics it portrays in the film, it is worthwhile to note that, even if it is ultimately the collective struggle to organize, it does require a lot on an individual to be able to face harassment, intimidation, and to ultimately have faith that the collective can come through. And the one other thing I’ll say about Norma Rae, that I think it’s really interesting that the film doesn’t show the bargaining or the victory of the union to get whatever their demands may be. The happy ending isn’t about winning the better contract, the ending is one where organizing the union itself is the victory, and we’re left to imagine that the victories that the union can go on to achieve, but that the first step is even realizing the potential power of organizing where this film sort of imagines that that in itself can be a happy ending, not necessarily all of the things that can come from that, but just that as a first step.

Nima: Yeah, you know, you mentioned how union busting is actually a, you know, through line, the barriers, the adversity that is faced by, you know, Sally Fields character Norma Rae, but also by, you know, those that she’s organizing in the textile factory. But can you talk about how the real threat, the real kind of union busting tactics take on a different tenor when there is cross racial solidarity shown at the factory. Can you talk a little bit about how race enters into the storytelling, but also then the politics but also like social environment, I guess, of the film Norma Rae, and maybe how that is different than the union busting tactics are therefore different than what we would see in, say, a documentary from around the same time like Barbara Kopple’s, Harlan County, USA. Where are the levers of storytelling different from, you know, the kind of Hollywood vision to the documentary?

Angela Allan: So I think a large part of the way that they choose to depict this is that the racial aspect is there to serve a couple of different functions. So first of all, it’s set in the South. This is a community that the film portrays as having deep seated racial divisions Norma Rae’s husband, played by Beau Bridges, is very upset that she brings over her fellow Black workers to their home for an organizing meeting, and that this is something that heroically she says, you know, that, ‘This doesn’t matter to me, it matters that they are workers.’ So the film wants to celebrate that as a major touchstone of this is what’s necessary to organize, while also showing how this is something as a particular tactic that happened in real life, of course, and in many circumstances other than just the J.P. Stevens plant, but that because of these tensions that are present in real life and present in the film, that the union busters see this as a real opportunity to find a particular wedge to drive to say, ‘Oh, this is going to actually create big problems, you’re going to have different wages, you’re going to have to work with different types of people,’ and that using race in particular, as this moment where they post this sign, and then it’s up to her to copy it down and show that this is the intimidation that’s happening as a solidarity building moment, I think that that’s largely how the film wants to play this in a couple of different ways. One is, look at the success of organizing, and the need to have that kind of cross racial solidarity, but also look at how labor itself can create racial solidarity too. So I think it’s important for the film largely that it thinks about the mutual relationship, and for the 1970s, you know, as you’re saying, films like Rocky are very much rooted in thinking about the oppression of white people that Norma Rae is recognizing that the oppression is one rooted in class, not race.

Adam: Yeah, because I mean, I think a lot about the Brotherhood of Timber Workers being a kind of an early example of the narrative about cross racial solidarity, the barracks in the East Texas and Louisiana timber workers were divided into white, Black and Italian, and they put the Mexicans with the Italians, we’re not sure why, and how the BTW was so radical, and the IWW later took it over. But similar kind of radical organizations. Their basic premise was that racial solidarity is a necessary component of unionization in the South, obviously, scholars have documented this to death about how one of the reasons that union levels are so low in the South is because racial divisions are used to divide workers, both by management and also kind of preexisting cultural currents that have nothing to do necessarily with management just, you know, a lot of racist white people. But also that it’s the opposite is true that if there’s going to be a meaningful reconciliation with our racist past that has to take the place of a worker led movement, which is a very sort of romantic idea, and it’s one that I think is central to most left-wing ideology, certainly central to our ideology. It’s mostly just an assertion, who knows, maybe it’s not true, kind of an article of faith or kind of axiom. And I think one of the things that Norma Rae does a good job of sort of showing that it’s a, I think, a fairly subversive idea. So, of course, you know, anti-union sentiment is not Hollywood’s fault entirely, and probably not even mostly, the ties to organized crime are real — obviously, they’re popular in Hollywood, but they did exist, and that was not good for the brand, as they say on Madison Avenue. Right-wing think tanks that emerged in the early ’70s, pretty much dedicated all the resources convincing people that unions were an artifact of the past, and obviously, some of the racist histories of kind of more mainstream unions like AFL, but it does seem like at least from our perspective, that anti-union depictions contribute somewhat to it, you know, it’s impossible to say exactly, but we do think it kind of contributes generally to this idea that you don’t need unions, because they’re this corrupt vestige of the past.

Now, when we sort of asked why a town like Hollywood, which is ostensibly quite unionized, I think it’s very compartmentalized in its unionization, right? All films have a lot of union labor through some mechanism or another. Why at the end of the day, it produces such an anti-union, like on average, produces such anti-union content, or at the very least just ignores it altogether, we lay out the argument that the Red Scare had a lot to do with it, that kind of set the tone early, letting Hollywood know that all the kind of closet commies and left-wingers in Hollywood basically needed to not go too far, and then that leads to a backlash of, ‘Well, I need to prove I’m not communist by either ignoring or bashing unionization.’ But also, of course, how Hollywood is funded. Rich people largely fund Hollywood. They’re the check writers, they’re the bosses. I want to get your thoughts on kind of what you think the structural reasons for the negative depiction of unions is. Would you agree with that, or do you think it’s something maybe more than that, or is it just a general cultural hatred of unions in America in general?

Angela Allan: Well, I think from the cultural perspective, there are just a lot of different demands on the kind of narratives that Hollywood wants to tell, and one of the things that’s really interesting to me is that you don’t see the absence of corporate critique in film. So even if pro-labor films largely disappeared in the 1980s, the 1980s is a moment where you also see this huge rise of films about evil corporations like Terminator, Aliens, Robocop, et cetera, et cetera. And the evil corporation films are mainstays for Hollywood. So it’s not as though filmmakers or audiences aren’t interested in addressing or representing corporate injustice, it’s not necessarily solved in the same kind of way, you know, I’d love if the most recent Jurassic Park movie had been about like InGen employees unionizing against their extremely unsafe labor conditions of dinosaurs running around eating them.

Nima: (Laughs.) Totally.

Angela Allan: But I think there’s something that from a narrative standpoint, there’s something sexier, more profitable storyline for like a couple of heroic, exceptional individuals to really fight back in these very spectacular ways, they’re action packed, they lack the kind of more quiet drama of having conversations with people making those connections in order to be able to organize into a union, and you know, from a political perspective, I think it’s so interesting that these evil corporation stories are so over the top. They create this additional sense of removal of well, this is only in sci fi dystopia type things, and that therefore those things that these corporations perpetuate are removed from the very real-world reach of corporations. So I think there’s some sense that we can critique labor-busting institutions, we can critique institutions that have bad policies, but only in these hyperactive, hyperinflated hero narratives that want to focus on individuals rather than the collective.

Adam: Yeah, because I think that speaks to two things, which is you’re right, there’s evil corporations, but it’s largely abstracted, and even in the context of like a Jurassic Park, it’s about some innate human hubris, rather than something more kind of structural or economical, which makes sense, because that kind of is a more humanistic way of making it. Which sort of gets to something that, Sarah and I wrote a book, and one of the things we confronted was like, okay, well, what does it mean to have like a socialist, or a kind of a more collective narrative, because the sort of Aristotelian hero narrative is, by definition, about the individual. The point I was making was, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about, which is like, is the individualistic narrative inherently not about collective action in that it is just an artifact of — what? I don’t know — Greek literature that has nothing to do with some sinister plot by corporations, is just kind of the nature of how we tell stories.

Nima: It’s also how stories are told in a very Western sense, right? This isn’t the world over necessarily the hero’s journey, you know, the kind of Joseph Campbell, Power of Myth, but at the same time, yeah, I think, you know, in Hollywood, you know, and, Angela, to your point, how emerging from the ’70s into the kind of Reaganite ’80s, tales of oppressive corporations, super powerful, corrupt, violent corporations are action movies, right, with oftentimes a singular hero or a band of heroes, but usually, there’s a main character, right? It’s not always like a John McClane individual. But you know, oftentimes there is that primary hero narrative, as opposed to what we’ve been talking about, which is stories about companies but where the solution is solidarity, right? The solution is collective and it isn’t necessarily putting a bullet through someone’s brain.

Adam: Yeah, but that’s way cooler, though. Come on.

Nima: Well right. I mean, is that kind of a function maybe of how politics also changed over that time? You know, I mean, you point out in your piece, Angela, how, Norma Rae almost as this, you know, symbolic, high point of labor narrative in Hollywood, also signals, I mean, the fact that it is almost it’s apex, what you then see is the vanishing of that kind of labor oriented storytelling in film throughout the ’80s. I mean, yes, there is Gung Ho, I guess, but what would you say in terms of how Hollywood is following the politics or maybe even creating the environment for that kind of politics to thrive, right? It’s kind of a chicken or egg scenario.

Angela Allan: Yeah, I think Gung Ho is a really funny example of this because the 1980s when labor unions do come up, you know, I can think of two examples that kind of fall outside the mob version and that’s in Gung Ho and in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and you know, I think the fact that you have one of these stories coming from a more white collar perspective and one coming more from a blue collar perspective, and yet they have similar kind of anxieties is really interesting about how these ideas perpetuate into insidious ways. So in something like Wall Street, you know, everyone remembers that the Gordon Gekko insider trading storyline and part of it is that he wants to buy up this airline so he can carve it up and sell for the rate that union pension plans, and that, of course is what convinces Charlie Sheen’s character that greed is not good as it turns out, but the union leaders do play a significant role in this central deal that they want to make. So, you know, Gordon Gekko falsely promises that he’ll give the workers stock options if the airline is profitable in exchange for concessions of a 20 percent pay cut and extended hours for one year. And so I think the very fact that union concessions are something that are coming up in this film as just sort of a necessary part of dealmaking, even after they decide that they are not interested in working with Gekko, and they want to find this new buyer, these aren’t imagined as evil corrupt union leaders, Martin Sheen’s character is the voice of reason within it, who’s very skeptical of this, but the film, you know, it accepts this logic that pay cuts are just good business sense and concessions don’t generally work in favor of the workers.

Nima: Yeah, and it’s interesting actually, the year that Wall Street came out, which is 1987, John Sayles released his film Matewan, which is about mine workers unionizing across racial lines, incidentally, in West Virginia. So interesting that then toward the end of the Reagan years, right, there’s this little peek into union coming back into Hollywood.

Angela Allan: But Matewan is also such a romanticized take though, it has to go into the past to find these storylines.

Nima: Totally.

Angela Allan: I don’t necessarily mean romantic in a good way, because you know, having these extremely evil coal mining people coming at you and shooting up your entire town is not a desirable thing. But at the same time, it sort of, again, creates this sense of removal of these workers who are really fighting for principles but yet isn’t this so extreme? Who could ever imagine being in this kind of circumstance as compared to the kinds of union storylines that are coming up more so in ’80s specific narratives like Wall Street or like Gung Ho, which has some of the most bizarre labor politics I’ve ever seen.

Adam: Well, let’s fast forward to today, which is Sorry to Bother You, which was probably the most, I don’t want to say, it’s an indie film, but it was popular, wide acclaim, had a pretty wide release, was probably the first overtly mainstream pro union film, I would argue, since Newsies, which is strangely socialist propaganda. We talked about that earlier. So I don’t know how that movie ever got made.

Nima: Don’t tell Disney.

Adam: No, it’s so weird and then Teddy Roosevelt comes in at the end as a Deus Ex Machina, you’re like, okay, yeah, right, so it was TR the whole time. But Sorry to Bother You was an interesting movie that was more about what you’re talking about, which is contemporary, more representative of your average worker today, which is kind of maybe white collar, beaten down by circumstance. Obviously, Boots Riley is very openly a socialist, communist, I’m not exactly sure how he actually defines himself, but something in that vein, but still was kind of critically acclaimed. I think it made Sonny Bunch of The Washington Post very angry. I think he even wrote an article about why the CIA needs to go back to funding films after it came out. But that obviously kind of touched a nerve. I know union organizers even today, many of the kinds of Amazon salts that I’d spoken to had mentioned that movie. So what are your thoughts on that film? And does it, I know, it’s, you know, a couple years old now, but do you think that maybe portends some mainstream-ification of labor sympathetic narrative in light of more and more union victories, more high-profile union victories, whether or not it adds up to more is debatable, but more high-profile union victories, we’re seeing more and more, as there’s more worker unrest right now?

Angela Allan: Yeah, I mean, I love Sorry to Bother You and I think it is a film that resonated with a lot of people, because although it does have that sort of same over the top aspect of a lot of the evil corporation films, since they are turning people into horses, it raises really important points about how corporations suppress workers, the stakes of organizing, that’s also a film that has a lot of investment in building cross racial solidarity, and I think it’s easy to see how that narrative of coming together to fight a corporation that looks a lot like Amazon, can have a sense of like, ‘Okay, we really can do this.’ And I think the way that we see places like The New York Times or The Washington Post, how they’ve been covering unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses and at Starbucks, that they already are casting them as having this kind of narrative flair, you know, so if Martin Ritt is like, ‘I was really inspired by Crystal Lee Sutton,’ people like Chris Smalls or Jaz Brisack feel like Norma Rae-esque figures, and you know, I don’t know that that’s necessarily a vote that we should remake Norma Rae or anything like that but I think that does suggest that there’s an appetite for these victory stories in real life.

Adam: Yeah, because what spawned this episode was I had written an article basically arguing that there was some backlash to the Chris Smalls veneration and I wrote an article where it basically said, like, look, you always have to be careful not to hero worship, that’s always a bad thing, but at the same time, why doesn’t the left such that it is or labor have more heroes? That’s, I think, a normal human instinct to want to have hero narratives so long as they’re positioned within a kind of collective effort. I think there’s something maybe it is Western, I don’t know, maybe it’s somewhat culturally ingrained into the DNA of how we perceive narratives but it seems like that’s a good thing. People need heroes, you know, growing up, you would see a cop blow someone away and say, ‘I want to be a cop.’ You know, I mean, I can’t tell you how many people in Washington D.C. literally went to D.C. because of The West Wing. It’s an ungodly amount of people. I know it’s declasse to talk about, but it’s obviously true. I mean, I had a friend who joined the military because he watched too much 24 one summer. So it seems like you would need to have hero narratives.

Nima: Yeah. Heroic attorney films I’m sure have inspired plenty of law school.

Adam: Yeah. Oh, God. How many people went to journalism school because of All the President’s Men? So yeah, you know, I think that there was something human about that. I think that’s okay. As long, again, as long as it’s not too far in the direction of great man theory or such things that are problematic, but that seems okay to me, personally.

Nima: Well, yeah, I think the idea that whether it’s a Norma Rae or, you know, Atticus Finch, or even like a John McClane, right, what are those stories that are going to inspire people? And you know, Angela, in the work that you do, analyzing history and literature and pop culture, what would you say about the importance of having these kinds of narrative heroes in what we are absorbing through, I mean, not only say, news media, where heroes may be cast in a different kind of way, but certainly, through art and culture, where’s the power in that and up against so many competing narratives, right, endless pro corporate narratives or pro cop narratives, there’s only a drop in the bucket of Sorry to Bother Yous out there or Norma Raes out there or even the romanticized Matewan. So where do you think that storytelling can get even more powerful? How can we start seeing more of those stories?

Angela Allan: Yeah, I mean, well, I guess, right now, and hopefully this will change, but we see that the union busters really have this stranglehold on narratives, and these are things that they, you know, show their employees videos of, of saying, you know, ‘The union leaders, they’re just stealing from you, they don’t care about you, we’re really the ones looking out for you, and we’ll take care of you don’t worry about it,’ and it’s easy to see how they are able to so successfully send those messages through narrative retelling and what we don’t see enough of on the other side is that that can be wrong, that, in fact, people can have victories in unionizing, and that collective action is a positive and can affect positive change. So I mean, I think having heroes, you know, whether that is routed through a figure of an individual or whether that is just the possibility, the heroic narrative of a movement, those stories are so useful, because they encourage other people to believe that, yes, unions are good, they are worth fighting for, they are worth having people be involved and invested and that they can win even going up against these large forces. So it would be wonderful to have more films kind of perpetuating these messages and narratives, but at the same time, you know, that’s always going to be most effective when we see it happening in real life, and I hope that’s the kind of thing that we’re seeing now.

Adam: Yeah, it’s a feedback loop. Of course, you don’t want to overemphasize how much pop culture influences people, but I definitely think it feeds off each other. So yeah.

Nima: Yeah, yeah, I mean, writing stories that are based on a true story helps keep that loop going.

Adam: But the true story has to happen first.

Angela Allan: Right.

Nima: Well, I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, and an occasional writer on pop culture for The Atlantic magazine. Angela, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Angela Allan: Thank you for having me.

[Music]

Adam: Whenever we discuss film and television and the kind of politics in film and television, I know as two people who love film and television, that we were always kind of, I don’t want to say hesitant, but we’re always a little bit, we want to be very aware that art, of course, doesn’t necessarily need to have a clear or perfect political line to be enjoyable. I think that kind of gets you to a very dogmatic and intellectually uninteresting place that can veer into anti-intellectualism or stifle quote-unquote “creativity.”

Nima: Sure.

Adam: We talked about the fact that movies that do discuss labor and labor unions, they do have a political output and a political effect and I think it’s okay to talk about that while still understanding that we can enjoy a good Scorsese mob movie as much as the next guy, but of course, I think over time, with enough depictions, they begin to sort of paint a certain picture and they, you know, I think we do have some creatives who listen to this show, people who are involved in the film and television industry in various means, whether it be writing, directing, production, art direction, etcetera, and I do think we are being a little bit dogmatic here in that I think we would say, maybe if you’re going to depict unions, think about how you do that, and also, maybe if you’re looking for a source of drama, think about the histories, the history of labor action, there’s a ton of historical examples. Obviously, there are really dramatic historical examples from the CIO strikes of the 1920s and ’30s to the textile strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the coal miner wars in West Virginia, the western mind strikes of the 1900s and 1910s, the free speech battles out in California, I mean, yeah, we can go on and on. There’s so much there that hasn’t been, so many stories that haven’t been told about about unionism, and it is inherently dramatic, that I guess we would say, you know, maybe give that a look or think about that, think about the ways in which we can romanticize labor in a way that the 10,000 cop shows and 10,000 prosecutor shows romanticize those professions. I do think it matters. I mean, like you said, the year after All the President’s Men came out, journalism school skyrocketed. The year after Top Gun, Navy recruitment went up 400 percent. The year after Birth of a Nation, the KKK was refounded after being dormant for 45 years. So, yeah, media does influence how we perceive certain things and I think it actually does matter that historically, our representations of unions have been mob bosses. I do think that does affect the attractiveness of unions.

Nima: And then it becomes almost like a trope, right? So, you don’t want to be too preachy by avoiding a trope that seems to work or seems to lend itself to drama, right? But at the same time, what is that doing? It is further entrenching this same idea again, and again, that labor unions are supported by the mob, or that that is the only way that you can understand them or that there is kind of this more blue collar side to it like a Deer Hunter kind of background, where folks are at the factory all day and then they go out for a beer and that’s solidarity but there doesn’t really wind up being any story to be told about management or why people’s lives are a certain way or how they maybe could be different or what solidarity could mean as a bargaining tool in a collective. These things don’t have to be boring, they can be just part of the stories because they actually have a lot to do with people’s lives, right? I mean, a number of the films we’ve talked about do this really well. Films we weren’t able to touch on, things like The Organizer, the 1963 Italian film by Mario Monicelli is another one, right? It’s literally called The Organizer. Go check it out if you haven’t seen it.

Marcello Mastroianni in 1963/64’s The Organizer. (Continental Distributing, Inc.)

Adam: There’s a lot of fields we missed, by the way. So if there’s one we missed, sorry, you know, let us know, obviously, we can’t be exhaustive.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: There’s a lot of bad and good we will miss by the very nature of the scope of the episode.

Nima: But what is fun, when we talk about film and TV and the ideologies that are infused in there, the narratives that get woven in and further entrenched and sometimes enhanced, sometimes broken, sometimes replaced by this art, it’s a conversation that I always love having on Citations Needed. It also, I think, discussing what art can do and how art so often, I mean, as you said, can not only imitate life, right, to be hokey about it, but it can also influence life. The fact that how we understand cops and lawyers and the military and the CIA and labor unions all kind of work in this environment. And so yeah, I’m glad we were able to talk about this.

But that will do it for this episode, this two-parter, and indeed, this season of Citations Needed. Since 2017, we’ve done over 160 episodes, more than 120 News Briefs, spoken to over 200 different guests. On behalf of our Citations Needed team — Adam, Florence, Julianne, Trendel, Marco, Morgan and myself — thank you so much for listening, for your ongoing support, and for spreading the word, sharing the show, and making it possible for us to keep doing this thing that we love. So really, thank you all so much.

Adam: Yes, thank you so much for listening this season. This is our fifth season. We celebrated our fifth anniversary over the past few weeks, so we’re very grateful for all the support. We absolutely love doing the show. We love the opportunity of doing the show. We’re really excited to come back for season six and bring up a whole host of new topics, push new conversations, and try to excavate heretofore unknown layers of bullshit. There’s always more to go over, so we’re excited to do that. Thank you again for all your support.

Nima: We’ll be taking a brief break and then we’ll come roaring back with all-new episodes of Citations Needed in September. We may even post some goodies for patrons in the meantime. And of course, you can grab some sweet Citations swag in our merch store at Bonfire.com/store/citations-needed. Stay up to date on all things Citations by following the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do consider becoming a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. So have a wonderful rest of the summer, or if you’re listening from way down south, enjoy your remaining winter, and we will see you all again in September. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you then.

[Music]

This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, August 3, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

--

--

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Citations Needed

Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.