Working hard for the money: Movies for Labor Day

Labor Day is a celebration of the working man and woman and also often a respite for them. Folks who work hard for their money, or who fight for their rights on the job, have often been depicted on the big screen over the years. If you have Labor Day off, it could be the perfect time to sit back, relax and watch one of these movies.

 
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"Silkwood" (1983)

"Silkwood" (1983)
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The movie brought us the phrase “Silkwood shower,” but that legacy undercuts the message of the film and also the life of actual activist Karen Silkwood. Meryl Streep starred as Silkwood, a woman who took it upon herself to investigate wrongdoings and cover-ups in the world of atomic energy. Naturally, Streep was nominated for an Oscar, as was her co-star Cher.

 
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"Norma Rae" (1979)

"Norma Rae" (1979)
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Norma Rae is probably the most famous labor activist in all of cinema. Sally Field was arguably never better than she was in the role of a factory worker fighting for a union at her textile factory. Field won an Oscar for her role. We liked her. We really liked her.

 
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"Blue Collar" (1978)

"Blue Collar" (1978)
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A couple of years after writing “Taxi Driver,” and a couple of years before he wrote “Raging Bull,” Paul Schrader made his directorial debut with “Blue Collar.” The film tells the story of three Detroit auto workers, including Richard Pryor. Despite that, it’s actually a serious film, and Pryor took on a somewhat rare dramatic role alongside Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto.

 
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"On the Waterfront" (1954)

"On the Waterfront" (1954)
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Of all the labor films, “On the Waterfront” has the greatest pedigree. The film won a whopping eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Marlon Brando also picked up an Oscar for one of his iconic roles. This is the movie where he says, “I coulda been a contender.” The American Film Institute called it the third-most-memorable line in movie history.

 
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"Harlan County, USA" (1976)

"Harlan County, USA" (1976)
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In lieu of a dramatization of labor strife, “Harlan County, USA” tells the story of a miner strike in documentary form. Despite that, the movie is as riveting, and at times disturbing, as anything in scripted cinema. Guns are involved, and the threat of violence lingers in the air. If you want to see a look into the lives of blue collar workers, for better or worse, this is a great, honest choice.

 
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"Hoffa" (1992)

"Hoffa" (1992)
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The legacy of Jimmy Hoffa, former leader of the teamsters union, is a complicated one. Those complications are explored in “Hoffa,” starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Danny DeVito. Hoffa may not be buried under the old New York Giants stadium, as was long rumored, but he is showcased in this movie. The film was divisive, as Nicholson got both a Golden Globe and a Razzie nomination.

 
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"Billy Elliot" (2000)

"Billy Elliot" (2000)
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Billy Elliot is largely about a working class boy taking up ballet, defying the stereotypes about the dance. However, both Billy’s brother and dad are coal miners on strike, and that strike plays a big part in driving the action. It’s unusually upbeat for a movie involving labor strife, but that’s mostly because of Billy’s success on the dance floor.

 
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"North Country" (2005)

"North Country" (2005)
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Labor strife is one thing, but another issue facing people in the workplace, particularly women, is sexual harassment. The film “North Country” dramatizes a landmark sexual harassment case, and none other than Charlize Theron is in the lead role as a woman who takes on a job at, guess what, a mine. Theron is a great actress, but she’s joined by the likes of Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek, Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner to tell this important story.

 
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"Sorry to Bother You" (2018)

"Sorry to Bother You" (2018)
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They’re still making movies about working people! Since the film is still new, and also rather weird, we won’t give you too many details about Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.” Let’s just say Lakeith Stanfield plays a telemarketer who adopts a “white voice” to advance at his career. The story just gets odder, and more labor-oriented, from there.

 
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"How Green Was My Valley" (1941)

"How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
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“How Green Was My Valley” infamously beat “Citizen Kane” for Best Picture, but don’t hold that against the movie. It’s plenty good, if not an all-time legendary work of cinema. The film is about, shockingly, coal miners, this time in 19th century Wales. It’s a slightly different feel than some other movies on this list, given its setting and time period, but that’s part of what makes it worth seeing.

 
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"Hidden Figures" (2016)

"Hidden Figures" (2016)
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“Hidden Figures” managed to pull off the combo of getting critical acclaim and Oscar love while also making a lot of cash — you know, the kind of “popular” movie the Academy is worried they aren’t paying enough attention to. The central trio in the film have the dual burdens of being women and black while trying to gain traction in their jobs at NASA. In the end, Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson plays a vital role in the space race.

 
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"Nine to Five" (1980)

"Nine to Five" (1980)
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“Nine to Five” is more than just a Dolly Parton song. It’s also a movie starring Dolly Parton alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda. The film isn’t as interested in any big themes or working class struggles as some others. It’s mostly about three women dreaming of getting revenge against their sexist boss, played with aplomb by Dabney Coleman.

 
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"Take This Job and Shove It" (1981)

"Take This Job and Shove It" (1981)
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The film isn’t as popular as the song that gave it its title, but “Take This Job and Shove It” is an interesting relic of 1980s comedies. Robert Hays, best known as Ted Striker in “Airplane!,” stars in this story of a failing brewery recently bought by a big, heartless conglomerate. Wacky antics ensue. Apparently it was the first movie to ever feature a monster truck.

 
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"Cesar Chavez" (2014)

"Cesar Chavez" (2014)
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Michael Pena is mostly known now for his comedic work and his scene-stealing performances in the “Ant-Man” movies. However, he also tried his hand at playing Cesar Chavez, the iconic labor organizer, in a biopic directed by Diego Luna. It was a tall order to undertake, as Chavez is a beloved figure, particularly in the Mexican-American community. Unfortunately, despite the talent on hand, the film has only a 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A truly worthy biopic for Chavez is out there waiting to be made.

 
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"Newsies" (1992)

"Newsies" (1992)
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Sure, “Newsies” is a Disney musical about paperboys, aka newsies, that starred a young Christian Bale. If you haven’t seen it, you at least know that. However, there is also a strike and a lot of union strife. Joseph Pulitzer is a villain, and he has a disabled newsy called “Crutchie” put into a corrupt orphanage. It’s a weird movie.

 
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"Metropolis" (1927)

"Metropolis" (1927)
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You should see “Metropolis” regardless of whether or not you are in the mood for a movie about the working class. Fritz Lang’s German epic is one of the most significant and impressive films of early cinema. If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this would be a great one to start with. There is a lot going on, including one of the first robots in movie history, but at the core there is a battle between the rich businessmen and the put-upon laborers. Some things never change.

 
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"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940)
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The Great Depression hurt a lot of people, including the Joad family at the center of “The Grapes of Wrath.” You probably don’t need to be told much about this movie. It’s based on a John Steinbeck novel that is considered an American classic. Given when the film came out, some working on the film were worried that they would be branded as Communists for the pro-worker ethos of the tale. Instead, they got a bunch of Oscar nominations, and the film is considered a classic on par with the book.

 
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"Bicycle Thieves" (1948)

"Bicycle Thieves" (1948)
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The Great Depression hurt a lot of people, including the Joad family at the center of “The Grapes of Wrath.” You probably don’t need to be told much about this movie. It’s based on a John Steinbeck novel that is considered an American classic. Given when the film came out, some working on the film were worried that they would be branded as Communists for the pro-worker ethos of the tale. Instead, they got a bunch of Oscar nominations, and the film is considered a classic on par with the book.

 
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"Tower Heist" (2011)

"Tower Heist" (2011)
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Michael Pena appears again! What do you do if you lose your pension because of a Ponzi scheme perpetrated by a crooked Wall Street businessman? Well, if you are part of the crew of “Tower Heist,” you pull off the titular tower heist. It’s not the most gravitas laden movie, but it’s a decent enough romp. If nothing else, it gave us an engaged version of Eddie Murphy for seemingly the first time since the ‘90s.

 
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"The Full Monty" (1997)

"The Full Monty" (1997)
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“The Full Monty” isn’t terribly serious, as it’s a comedy about a group of guys who decide to become male strippers. However, the reason they become strippers is because they are unemployed, and four of them are former steel workers. In ‘90s England, that was something that resonated with people. Sure, maybe they didn’t plan to strip down to nothing, aka “the full monty,” but they could appreciate where the story was coming from and root for the guys at the center of the story.

 
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"Good Will Hunting" (1997)

"Good Will Hunting" (1997)
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You probably think of “Good Will Hunting” as that movie about a Harvard janitor who is secretly a math genius. However, if you don’t focus on “math genius,” you may notice the word “janitor.” Will Hunting starts off very working class and all his buddies from Southie are working class. In fact, part of the emotional core of the movie is Will’s friends, especially Ben Affleck’s Chuck, wanting him to move on and not get stuck in the financial mire they are in.

 
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"F.I.S.T." (1978)

"F.I.S.T." (1978)
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When you hear that there is a Sylvester Stallone movie called “F.I.S.T.,” you might think that he plays some sort of soldier or superhero. Instead, Stallone stars as Johnny Kovak, a warehouse worker in Cleveland who becomes part of the truck driver labor union. This may sound familiar to you, and yes, the story is inspired by Jimmy Hoffa’s.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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