Films and the Depiction of Class

Published with permission of the author
(From The Encyclopedia of Class—publishing in early 2007)
Bill Barry gives the only course in the U.S. dealing with labour in the movies.

Films and the depiction of class

Bill Barry
Community College of Baltimore County

Movies are the most popular of the popular arts, usually associated with working class audiences, so it is worth looking at how workers, as part of a mass commercial audience, see themselves depicted on the occasionally silver screen.

Movies depicting workers reflect larger social movements: in the 1930’s, for example, there are some “socially conscious” movies which virtually disappear by the 1980’s in the Reagonomics era and are casualties today of the dwindling union movement. Unlike some other forms of art, movies require an enormous capital investment so the commercial successes of “summer teen movies” and of Star Wars in 1977, with its merchandising tie-ins and computer-generated special effects, have generally turned movies away from social dramas which do not provide boffo box office receipts.

Movies which portray working class life can be placed, like workers history, into two basic categories: “labor” movies, which show workers’ collective struggles and their organizations, and “worker” movies which depict workers lives and situations, often focusing on individual efforts and upward social mobility. Both categories of movies, however, show workers trying to deal with the fundamental class question: how can workers make their lives better? (more…)