This Labor Day Weekend: Five Films About (Not) Working in America

America doesn’t officially celebrate International Workers’ Day with the rest of the world on May 1. Instead Americans need their own fancy Labor Day. Though it tends not to be celebrated in the same spirit as International Workers’ Day, just play along with me, okay? If you don’t spend the weekend barbecuing, sun-cooking your flesh or laying face down in a puddle of your own sick, you could get into the Labor Day spirit by watching some work(er)-themed films!

Norma Rae (1979)

Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, this Martin Ritt directed film stars Sally Field as Norma Rae Webster, a cotton mill worker. Inspired by union organizer Reuben Warshowsky, Norma Rae helps organize a union in an effort to take a stand against the subpar working conditions she and her coworkers are forced to endure. Field won an Oscar for her turn as Norma Rae Webster. (No, it wasn’t when she made that speech. That was for her Places in the Heart win.)

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Michelle Williams plays Wendy Carroll, a woman traveling with her dog Lucy. Wendy is headed to Alaska where she hopes to find work in a canning factory. When her car breaks down in Oregon, the meager amount of money she has budgeted for her trip quickly begins to disappear. The film is both timely (because of the recession theme) and indicative of a longer developing trend of manufacturing and other working class jobs disappearing from the American work landscape.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

When her husband is killed in an accident, housewife Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn, in the role that won her an Oscar) sells off most of her belongings and leaves New Mexico with her son, Tommy. Their destination is Monterey, California, where Alice hopes to pursue a career as a singer (the career she cut short when she got married). Alice hits some obstacles and must accept a job waiting tables at a diner in Tucson to survive. There she falls in love with a rancher, David. Alice offers a dramatic look at the balancing act of meeting financial needs and pursuing creative passions.

Office Space (1999)

You didn’t think all the films on this list would be downers, did you? Mike Judge’s workplace comedy stars Ron Livingston as Peter Gibbons. When Peter attends a hypnotherapy session and the therapist dies mid-session, Peter winds up stuck in a state of total relaxation and decides he will no longer go to work. Judge’s comedy brilliantly captures contemporary office culture and everything you hate about it. It also functions as a great bit of wish fulfillment cinema: maybe you envy Peter’s relaxed ability to just quit his job or maybe you’ve always had a burning desire to take your office’s printer out to a field and kill it with blunt force trauma.

9 to 5

Another bit of wish fulfillment cinema, 9 to 5 stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as office workers unhappy with their anti-union, chauvinistic pig of a boss (Dabney Coleman). What else are three women to do but take their boss prisoner in his own home and start making the changes that need to be made to improve the workplace? Yes, exactly. Also:

What other movies would you recommend? Sound off in the comments! Happy Labor Day!
Post originally published Labor Day Weekend 2011.

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