03/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2013

Thoughts on Haiti, And the Spirit of Activism in Film

It must be acknowledged, I think, that the horrific tragedy in Haiti concerns much more than a natural disaster. As David Brooks astutely observed on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, we had already pumped an enormous amount of aid and resources into this, the poorest country in our hemisphere before last Tuesday's tragedy, yet both economic and social progress was agonizingly slow in coming.

It would be criminal to minimize the horrendous human loss and devastation we've all witnessed -- who can fail to have their guts wrenched by the misery and suffering broadcast from there into our tidy little homes?

Yet in the rubble of Haiti perhaps we can seize the chance to help re-build a country -- not just by providing humanitarian relief and ongoing financial support, but also addressing the more complex long view, confronting the fundamental social and economic challenges that have kept Haiti and its people perpetually caught in an agonizing cycle of poverty and hopelessness.

Ultimately, it is not enough for us to care, not enough to write checks. Instead our best minds must fashion and coordinate a carefully considered, long-term plan to accomplish the greatest -- and importantly -- the most enduring benefit for Haiti. Integral to this will be working to eradicate the waste and corruption which has hindered the country's progress for so long.

All that said, one can hardly dismiss the enormous outpouring of concern and support which our own citizens have shown in the wake of this catastrophe. This reflects an integral part of our national character: a spirit of activism, frequently dormant but formidable when aroused, that comes from our ancestors having come here to establish an authentically free society, coupled with a stubborn, inherent belief that hardship and injustice inflicted on ordinary human beings, whatever form it takes, must be attacked and eliminated...

Not surprisingly, many outstanding films have shown just what this spirit of activism can achieve to combat the forces of oppression, greed, cruelty, and ignorance.

Great activist movies portray the ongoing struggle between the welfare of working people and larger societal forces, seemingly beyond their control, that threaten their integrity, livelihood, and often, their very survival. These quintessentially American films make inspiring David and Goliath stories, where average citizens take on powerful and entrenched "special interests" via the media, the courts, or the labor unions.

Each tale in its way reinforces our core belief that even the humblest human being has fundamental rights, the foremost being the right to live with dignity and self-respect, a condition too few Haitians enjoyed, even before last week's earthquake obliterated their already tenuous existence.

A perfect case in point is the landmark Salt Of The Earth (1954). Filmed independently on a shoestring by blacklisted director Herbert Biberman, it too was blacklisted on release, the only movie in our country's history to earn that distinction. Using mainly non-actors, Earth portrays the indigent lives of workers at a zinc mine in New Mexico, focusing on Ramon and Esperanza Quintero (Juan Chacon and Rosaura Revueltas). When Ramon, backed by the Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, leads a walk-out against the Empire Zinc Company, reprisals follow. The company eventually produces an injunction forcing the men off the picket line, so their wives step in and take over for them. Shot with a documentary-style immediacy, this historic effort still makes for stark, powerful cinema. (Note: black-listed actor Will Geer, later Grandpa in The Waltons, plays the sheriff).

Fast-forward twenty-five years to Sally Field's Oscar-winning turn in Norma Rae. After hearing New York based union organizer Reuben (Ron Leibman) deliver a speech at the Southern textile mill where she works, Norma Rae (Field) joins the effort to organize workers. Butting heads with management, and alienating husband Sonny (Bridges) with her new activism, Norma Rae evolves from pliant employee to impassioned agitator for workers' rights. The interplay between Norma Rae and unlikely ally Reuben (Leibman) is interesting to watch, but ultimately it's the emergence of Norma Rae's righteous fire that's most memorable. The diminutive but plucky Field is triumphant in her break-out role.

Director Mike Nichols would bring a chilling true story to life with Silkwood (1983), starring the gifted Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, an employee at a plutonium plant outraged at her management's blatant disregard for proper safety procedures, and the resulting risk of radioactive contamination. On her way to meet a journalist in November, 1974, Karen disappeared, never to be seen again. Streep's nuanced portrayal shows an ordinary woman who, through fate, circumstance and a streak of raw defiance, risks her life to attempt something extraordinary. Kurt Russell executes one of his more interesting roles as Karen's boyfriend Drew, and the talented Cher sheds all her glamour to play Karen's lesbian friend Dolly. Director Nichols builds a gradual sense of dread, culminating in a nerve-jangling conclusion. Don't miss this disturbing cautionary tale.

One of the best films of the 1980's, John Sayles's brilliant Matewan (1987) takes us back to the 1920s, and the primitive, perilous lives of coal miners in West Virginia. United Mine Workers union rep Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) has his hands full organizing this group, as they comprise white, black and Italian factions unaccustomed to interacting outside the pit. Joe's simple message: there is strength in numbers. Flavorful, meticulous recreation of time and place is enhanced by powerful performances, particularly from Cooper and a majestic James Earl Jones playing a miner called "Few Clothes" Johnson. This may well be Sayles's finest hour.

Barbara Kopple's riveting documentary American Dream (1989) follows a contentious 1987 meatpackers' strike at a Hormel plant in Minnesota. In the wake of a proposed pay-cut for doing one of the world's least pleasant jobs, we witness a torturous, mind-numbing process as organizers struggle to diffuse friction among angry strikers, who differ on what strategy to employ against Hormel. Ultimately the local union rejects the guidance of their national parent and takes on the process themselves, hiring strike "consultant" Ray Rogers to help them. With the director's fly-on-the-wall approach, we experience all the mounting tension and frustration, as ensuing events seem to call the organizers' judgment into question. And of course, the price isn't just wasted resources -- there are jobs at stake. Kopple's unblinking chronicle of this painful, divisive episode reflects documentary-film-making at its very best.

In Separate But Equal (1991), a recounting of events leading to the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark ruling on school desegregation, Sidney Poitier stars as Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice who, on behalf of a small black community in South Carolina, squares off on the long-standing injustice of segregation against John W. Davis (Burt Lancaster) in the courtroom of Chief Justice Earl Warren (Richard Kiley). Originally a TV movie aired in two parts, this Emmy-winning film should be required viewing for kids age 12 and up. Poitier is perfectly cast as Marshall, who in 1950 was lead attorney for the struggling, undermanned N.A.A.C.P. Featuring a mellow Lancaster in his final role and a memorable supporting turn by Kiley as Earl Warren, Separate is an invaluable rendering of an historic moment in our country's evolution. Sidney does Mr. Marshall proud.

In the fact-based A Civil Action (1999), John Travolta stars as Jan Schlictmann, a personal injury attorney who pursues a negligence suit against corporate titans W.R Grace and Beatrice Foods. The companies have a joint interest in a leather production facility in Woburn, Massachusetts, whose illegal dumping of toxic waste may have led to the deaths of several local children. Anne Anderson (Kathleen Quinlan), the mother of one victim, decides to sue. Jan immerses himself in this high-stakes battle, wagering everything he has on a positive outcome. Gripping and literate, Action features a stellar cast, notably John Lithgow as the trial judge, and Robert Duvall as Jerome Facher, the formidable opposing counsel. This absorbing courtroom drama grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

And finally, don't miss Ken Loach's Bread and Roses (2000). L.A. organizer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) wants to unionize a local janitorial service, largely comprised of illegal immigrants. Without rights, these workers are regularly abused and mistreated for sub-standard wages. Though Brody excels in the central role, it's easy to see why he sets his eye on worker Maya (Pilar Padilla), since her radiance jumps off the screen. Maya becomes a key supporter, risking her own position, much to the consternation of sister and fellow employee Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who must support a disabled husband and can't afford to lose her job. The conflict between principle and practical reality is deftly explored by Loach, and we learn again that within such sticky, complex issues lie no easy answers. This intense, authentic depiction of our most vulnerable workers' struggle for a decent life only underscores the importance of taking a stand, however daunting.

As most authentic activists will tell you, accepting the status quo is simply not an option.

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