The working class in film
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath

Cinema has always provided popular entertainment for the masses — this was especially true in its early days, when the elites often considered it ‘low brow’ — and because much of the audience was working class, and people like to see themselves reflected in the media they’re consuming, the stories often featured working class characters, such as Charlie Chaplin’s ever-struggling Tramp.

In Metropolis (1927) the ruling elite, living in their glamorous penthouses and idyllic roof gardens, coerce and manipulate the robotic, slave-like workers, ensuring that they remain productive. As the oppressed working class toil deep underground, a new social consciousness breaks out — this leads to a revolution. The autocratic ruling elite accepts that the system is unjust and should be reformed. Key to this social shift is the ability of the workers to identify as a community, one that can change the status quo by working together, and a ruling elite who use manipulation and disinformation to keep the workers fragmented and politically ineffective.

Political struggle

The real-life fight for recognition and rights — the Russian Revolution — forms the story of Battleship Potemkin (1917). When the mass of oppressed factory workers rise up against the capitalist owners, the police state, and the aristocracy. A year before, in America, Intolerance (1916) told the story of injustice throughout the ages: including an unfair capitalist society of Twentieth Century America. In Strike (1925) a worker is falsely accused of theft and commits suicide: his outraged co-workers fight the ingrained injustice in the system.

In Silkwood (1983) corporate incompetence and money-chasing leads to safety cuts, and blaming the workers for a radiation leak. And Made in Dagenham (2010) covers the fight for equality for female workers at a car plant. In the happy ending a sympathetic Labour Government brings in new laws to bolster workplace equality.

Battleship Potemkin
Battleship Potemkin

Drudgery and survival

The plight of the working class can be a grim struggle for existence, and the fight to retain human dignity. In The Grapes of Wrath (1940) people do what they can to survive the US economic depression of the 1930s. In The Bicycle Thieves (1948), a father struggles for dignity, and a job to support his family. Sometimes it takes an outsider to intervene and defend a working class community. In Pale Rider (1985) the outsider is the ghost of a murdered man. His actions bring self-respect back into a persecuted community. Robot policemen pacify the workers in THX-1138 (1971), where people are state-medicated and imprisoned in an oppressive system — humanity can only be restored by escaping.

Celebrating community

Life isn’t all drudgery and hardship, there are good times to be had, moments to celebrate working class communities — escapist pleasures to be experienced. In Rita, Sue And Bob Too! (1986) sexual antics and alcohol provide a distracting backdrop to life’s challenges, much as it did twenty years earlier in another British realist film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). In Brassed Off (1996), a coal mine closure, and the struggle to maintain a way of life, leads members of a working class community to gain recognition by winning a brass band competition. The working class community of an American small town is celebrated in The Last Picture Show (1971), where love and friendship compensate for the lack of opportunity in a place overshadowed by the modern world.

Resilience and resourcefulness

Die Hard
Die Hard

Working class people are tough and resourceful: in Modern Times (1936) Chaplin’s Tramp character transcends demeaning factory work and prison to become a successful entertainer. The working woman is celebrated in Working Girls (1986), and 9 to 5 (1980). In Educating Rita (1983) a working class housewife and hairdresser takes on the challenge of academic study.

And there are working class heroes: Mike Dundee in Crocodile Dundee (1986) uses his tough, outback resourcefulness to beat a gang of ruthless organised criminals. In the apocalyptic future world of The Postman (1997) an ordinary man becomes a hero, bringing a downtrodden community together and fighting a tyrannical oppressor. In Die Hard (1989), New York policeman, John McClane, working alone and outnumbered, outsmarts a gang of thieves — while always maintaining his wry humour: ‘Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs,’ he says, mimicking his wife’s invitation, as he crawls through an air-conditioning duct.