Labor Day 2012: Women’s labor in the movies

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S., and while it’s a day that never held a particularly strong significance for me growing up (because like most kids, I was happy that it was the first day off of school after the beginning of the new school year), as an adult, I’ve come to understand it as something quite significant.  Although American Labor Day provides a day off of work for many people which is often filled with barbecues, family get-togethers, big sports games, or even powwows and other festivals, its history holds quite a profound importance, and the struggle to represent labor holds enormous benefits for most people.

American Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882 and became a national holiday in 1894, celebrated on the first Monday of September every year.  Like most countries, labor has played a major role not only in politics, but in the business world here in the U.S.  Because of organized labor action, we have the eight hour work day, the right to organize unions, on the job safety standards, and much more, including organizing actions surrounding domestic workers.  These are results of labor action – and continued labor actions – which affect the daily lives of American workers.  One of America’s most famous labor organizers is a woman by the name of Mary Harris Jones (called “Mother Jones”), an Irish-born woman who co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World, helped mineworkers to organize, and was at one time called “the most dangerous woman in America.”

We see labor everywhere – on commercials, on sitcoms (often domestic comedies which incorporate housework – washing dishes, picking up after the kids, picking kids up from school, making dinner), and on hour-long dramas (often workplace dramas, most popularly medical or law enforcement – doing surgery, dealing with a patient’s death, nabbing the bad guy, doing a stakeout).  Through film, though, there can be more of an exploration of labor and the types of labor that we provide.  It can be a theme of a film in a way that it can’t (or can, but with difficulty) be a theme of an ongoing series.

This Labor Day, I want to honor some films from my own life which I feel celebrate, explore, and represent the labor of women in its many forms.  Sometimes it’s domestic, sometimes it’s on-the-job, sometimes it’s political.  In doing this, I like to think I’m not only honoring these films as important contributions to the discussion of women’s labor, but also as important contributions by filmmakers.  (Along the lines of domestic work, my friend, Marian Evans, of the fantastic Wellywood Woman blog and podcast, has recently started a project of her own on Pinterest called “Keeping an Eye on ‘The Washing'” in which she explores how the act of doing laundry is represented in writers’ and artists’ work, and how it affects their lives.  Visit the project here.)

What are some of your favorite (or even not so favorite) films that show women’s labor?

What do you think the best women’s labor film of all-time is?

Leave a reply below!

Norma Rae (1979) explores the struggle for a small town to organize a labor union for its textile workers.  Sally Field plays “Norma Rae,” a single mother who takes it upon herself to work with a union organizer from New York to persuade her fellow workers in the local textile mill to stand up for their rights and to demand protections, which can only be achieved by organizing a union.  The most famous scene from the film, and perhaps the most powerful, is when Norma Rae storms onto the floor of the plant where she, her aging father, and most of her friends have worked all their lives, writes “union” on a piece of cardboard and stands up on one of the tables.  She slowly turns around, showing the sign to all workers on the floor, as her bullying and union-busting bosses stand around her ready to haul her off the floor.  Slowly, but surely, Norma Rae’s fellow workers begin to shut off their machines in support of organizing a union.  Even writing this is making me tear up, and it’s one of a very few scenes in any movie that never fails to make me cry.  (Not to ignore the domestic side of the film, the story also shows how difficult Norma Rae finds it to balance her union organizing work, her day job in the mill, and her homelife where she has a lot of demands placed on her by her kids as well as her boyfriend, played by Beau Bridges.)

Waitress (2007) is written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.  It tells the story of “Jenna,” played by Keri Russell in what I think is her best role ever.  She’s a master pie-maker, and serves tables in a diner in a small town with two of her best friends (one of whom is played hilariously by Shelly).  With an abusive and domineering husband at home, who controls her every move, she suddenly finds herself unhappily pregnant.  Unsure of her life – she wants to leave it all behind – she ends up having an affair with her doctor, played by the awesome Nathan Fillion (who is also married).  Faced with a crisis of conscience, she’s able (with some urging by the late, great Andy Griffith who plays a regular in the diner), to face her fears head-on and make the best decision for her and her newborn baby girl.  I like this film not only because it’s wonderfully written; not only because it stars Shelly (who I fell in love with when I first saw Hal Hartley’s masterpiece, “Trust”); not only because it’s funny, sweet, sad and painful, but because it mixes both “workplace” and “domestic” work.  Jenna does very domestic work – she’s the resident pie-maker (and invents some outrageous flavors, and everyone loves her pies – but she does it outside of the home.  There have been many films that deal with the lives of waitresses, but rarely, if ever, have I seen a film that does it so respectfully.

(Note: following the murder of Adrienne Shelly in 2006, her husband, Andy Ostroy, founded the wonderful Adrienne Shelly Foundation which is dedicated to helping women filmmakers. Visit the Foundation.)

Household Saints (1993) is directed and co-written by Nancy Savoca, and based on the novel by Francine Prose.  The film follows three generations of Italian-American women in New York – the mother-in-law of Tracey Ullman (married to Vincent D’Onofrio), Tracey Ullman herself, and Ullman and D’Onofrio’s daughter, played by Lili Taylor.  It’s based both in the home and on the job (D’Onofrio works in a butcher shop).  Taylor’s character is followed from a young age; she is a girl who becomes very religious and enamored of the “Little Flower,” St. Therese of Lisieux, who was a devout Catholic who died at quite a young age.  Taylor commits to prayer and a life of domestic service, both activities which consume her life.  At one point, her parents fear she may be having a mental breakdown and she ends up in a hospital where she does her best to continue to give her life in service.

Jane Eyre is a story written by Charlotte Brontë which has been adapted time and time again for the big screen (and is one of my favorite stories).  Its most recent adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska (as “Jane”) and Michael Fassbender (as “Rochester”), was released in 2011.  Jane is a young girl who is being raised by her aunt, a woman who despises her and favors her own children over Jane, despite the fact they constantly torment and bully Jane.  She is soon sent off to a cruel situation at a boarding school from which she eventually graduates, then moves on to a role as a governess for a dour yet aggressive man, Mr. Rochester, who cares for a young ward, the daughter of a former friend of his.  Needless to say, Rochester is quickly won over by Jane, with whom he falls in love, but there are a number of twists!  Throughout the film we witness Jane in her daily activities with Adele (the young ward), as well as with Rochester, who demands her presence during most of his activities as he wants to be near her.  Jane’s life is filled with quite a bit of silence and down time in the large, virtually empty house – this was her job, like it or not, filled with satisfaction or not.  During the time period, being a governess was one of a very few jobs for women, and it was a highly circumscribed position.

The Huffington Post did a piece on the “7 Best Working Women Movies,” which focuses on the workplace.  Take a look at the story and clips here.


Her.Stories: Nina Simone biopic, Toronto Int’l Film Fest, Sweden & women filmmakers, and For a Good Time, Call…

The Controversy Surrounding the Casting of Zoë Saldana                
as Nina Simone in Cynthia Mort’s New Biopic

Cynthia Mort is writer/director of a yet to be titled biopic(ish) of the legendary singer/musician Nina Simone.  With Mary J. Blige originally attached (for several years before she departed the project allegedly due to financial problems with the production), Zoë Saldana has recently been cast as Simone.  There has been an outcry about this mainly around the fact that Saldana bears no resemblance to Simone, but also because Saldana is a Latina (she’s also black, by the way) and has a lighter skin tone than Simone.  Director Mort has indicated that it’s not a strict biopic as it takes liberties with the facts (one of which is that Simone had an affair with a gay man — she didn’t).  Even Simone’s daughter, whose name is simply “Simone,” has spoken out against the story, and has claimed that following an initial conversation with Mort where they agreed to speak again, Simone was met with silence for, as Mort explains separately in an Entertainment Weekly interview, she was told not to communicate with Simone.

One disturbing fact about this entire conversation is that I have seen several articles that refer to Saldana explicitly as “Dominican,” without mentioning the fact she is multiracial — yes, she is a Latina, but she is also a Black Latina (and there are a great many number of Black Latinos in the world).  Also, this is not to disregard that she may be more than “just” Latina and Black.  The language used to describe her as a Latina, while simultaneously avoiding that she is also Black smacks to me of a sort of ethnocentrism which pits the Latino community against the Black community and dismisses Saldana’s ethnic, racial and cultural complexities (just like we all have).  Yes, I’m in agreement that the casting is bad because of the complete lack of resemblance Saldana holds to Simone (and yes, resemblance also includes skin tone), but I do not think that “she’s not Black, but Latina,” is a valid argument against Saldana being cast in the role; in fact, that argument is completely fallacious.  That is one reason I wanted to provide this digest, to not only follow along with the controversy surrounding a biopic of a woman I greatly admire and have been a fan of for years, but also to address, in some small way, the prejudiced approach that many journalists and those choosing to leave comments on news sites, have taken with regard to Saldana playing Nina Simone.

What are YOUR thoughts? Please leave a reply below.

*MUST READ*:  We Need To Educate Ourselves On Race vs. Ethnicity (And Other Things I Learned From The Ongoing Zoe Saldana/Nina Simone Conversation)
at Shadow and Act

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone: My thoughts
at the Monique Blog: race, entertainment, culture

Nina Simone’s Daughter on Her Mother’s REAL Legacy
at Ebony

Will ‘Avatar’ Actress Zoe Saldana Play Legendary Singer Nina Simone?
at The Daily Beast

Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film
at The Huffington Post

Nina Simone’s Daughter Responds to Zoe Saldana Casting, Says Film Is ‘Unauthorized’
at Clutch Magazine

Larger-than-life: Nina Simone film writer-director, others, on beauty, challenge of musician biopics
at Entertainment Weekly

Casting Notice For Nina Simone Project Reveals More About What To Expect…
at indieWIRE


Other stories about women in film this week:

Toronto & Women Directors
at Wellywood Woman

The Smart and Funny Young Women Behind the Most Surprisingly Empowering Movie of the Year
at The Huffington Post

More Female Documentary Directors, But Celluloid Ceiling Remains
at The Wrap

Ann Richards Film Recalls a Woman and Her Era
at the New York Times

First-Time Director Leslye Headland Talks About Her Uproarious Comedy ‘Bachelorette’
at Backstage

Reichert honore for lifetime achievement in film
at YS News

Venice film festival: female directors get recognition for a change
at The Guardian

LUND 2012: New Wave Of Titles Focus On Female Filmmakers In Genre Film
at Twitch Film

Q + A with Arpita Kumar about her film “Sita”

Filmmaker Arpita Kumar


Arpita Kumar is the director of Sita – a short narrative film about an Indian domestic help who becomes a commercial surrogate. She is a graduate from the MFA program in Film/Video at California Institute of the Arts, and has made several short experimental films about female subjectivity that screened at The Museum of Contemporary Arts (MOCA) in Los Angeles, the 3rd South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco, The Chashama Film Festival in New York City, to name a few.


Her Film:  You recently made a narrative short called Sita.  Can you describe what the film is about?

Arpita Kumar:  Sita is a film that unfolds piecemeal by prying open a window onto a day when the lives of three women and a girl converge. Dr. Angela Sharma, an IVF specialist encounters multiple surrogates regularly. Sita is one such surrogate who is pregnant for a Canadian woman, Kate. However, this is a surrogacy that opens a legal and ethical can of worms for all. The story culminates in tragic irony when the body of a young girl and of Sita becomes sites for opposing narratives on female reproduction.  With everything at stake, Sita makes a choice that is both dignified and disruptive. There are no villains here, just individuals with desperate needs.

HF:  I have read an interview in which you listed questions about commercial surrogacy which your film addresses.  What have your biggest challenges been in delving further into this issue as you made your film?

AK:  During research, writing, and production of the film, the focus was clearly the surrogate – the woman who rents her womb out to strangers and puts her body through such physical and emotional strain. As I started post-production, I became aware that Sita would be a more powerful film if it also brought forth the predicament of the intended parent as well. The challenge then was to edit and mould the film in such a way that the audience feels not only for Sita but also for Kate, the Canadian woman who has struggled to have a baby for many years now. To highlight the complexity of such a commercial arrangement where abuse and exploitation hurts not only the surrogate but also the intended parents was quite a challenge!

HF:  In a recent interview on Open Beast, you mentioned your desire to see activism around medical tourism.  What are the ways in which you are trying to raise consciousness about medical tourism, specifically commercial surrogacy?

AK:  We just finished the film, so now the focus is to get it out into the world. We plan to do the film festival circuit run – showcase it in as many festivals a possible. Once we are done with the festival circuit, the plan is to screen the film at reproductive rights forums, social justice seminars, on television, the local community screenings –anywhere we could reach a wider audience and get the conversation started about the film and the complexity around the commodification of the third world female body. Of course, posts on blogs such as Her Film are excellent steps towards this goal.


To connect with this filmmaker and to support her work, please visit these links:

Sita’s Facebook page:

Sita’ s Twitter page: @Support_Sita

Sita’s website:

Sita IMDB:

SPOTLIGHT: “Sweet, Sweet Country”

Dehanza Rogers is a third year MFA student in directing and cinematography at the University of California Los Angeles School of Theater, Film & Television.  She’s currently crowdfunding her film, “Sweet, Sweet Country,” which is “a refugee’s tale set in the South – an exploration of the American Dream.”

Dehanza Rogers (writer/director)


With her parents and younger siblings living in a refugee camp in Kenya, 20 year-old Ndizeye struggles to support not only herself, but provide for a family she’s not seen in five years. Living in a small southern town, her struggle becomes so much more when her family literally shows up at her doorstep.

The trailer


Raising funds through:  Kickstarter (campaign page)

Campaign goal: $5,000 (At the time of this post, the campaign is 40% funded)

Campaign ends: September 4, 2012

“Ernesto” and “Ndizeye” (Gbenga Akinnagbe and Danielle Deadwyler)

“Ernesto” (Gbenga Akinnagbe)

Director’s Statement
I grew up firmly rooted between the Southern black experience and the Immigrant experience. Growing up black in Georgia meant I was tied—bound really—to a troubled past that still plays out in the present.  The same can be said of the Immigrant experience. The vitriolic spirit behind the sentiment of the “hyphenated American” is alive and well, just repackaged. Sweet, Sweet Country is set in a small Southern town and while there is goodwill by some, the idea of these Others holding fast to their culture while in America seems to offend.  (Read more.)

“Ndizeye” (Danielle Deadwyler)

“The Simbagoye Family” (left to right: Tammy McGarity, Josphine Lawrence, Dave Sangster, Ce Ce Sandy)



Danielle Deadwyler (“Ndizeye”)
Gbenga Akinnagbe (“Ernesto”)

Dehanza Rogers (Writer/Director)
Dana Gills, Doug Turner (Producers)
Autumn Baily-Ford, Shadae Lamar Smith (Co-Producers)
Ragland Williamson (Director of Photography)
Sarah Jean Kruchowski (Production Design)
Brianna Quick (Costume Design)
Vivia Armstrong (Casting Director)

“Fahkta” (Tammy McGarity)

“Danai” (Dave Sangster)

Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:


Facebook: /sweetsweetcountry

Twitter: @dayerogers (director) / @sscfilm (the film)



(All photos and information courtesy of the filmmaker.)

Do you have a film you are trying to finance that you would like to feature here?  Visit the Contact page to submit your information.

Her.Stories: Uma Thurman on sexualization of women in film, women in Hollywood (we don’t look like men), filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, Venice film festival

Women’s Film and Stage Roles! Are Any Good, Dramatic Parts Being Written?
at Technorati

Women directors take front row at Venice film festival
at The Express Tribune

Women Can’t Gain Influence in Hollywood Because Women Don’t Look like Men
at Forbes

Zimbabwe: LIFF 2012 to Laud Successful Women
(International Images Film Festival)
at All Africa

Filmmaker teaches movie magic to Chile’s slum kids
at NBC 29

Every Woman’s Story Counts — Including Yours                                                        (Thanks to Marian Evans for tweeting this story!)
at The Huffington Post

A Feminist Look at The Women of ‘Arrested Development’
at Bitch Flicks

Maryam Keshavarz, interview: ‘Iran’s women like to kick up the dirt a little’
at The Telegraph

Women of Bhakti film screening
at The Washington  Times

Uma Thurman on the Sexualisation of Women in Film: ‘It Felt Paralysing’
at Grazia 

All-female broadcast crew that strives to keep it reel
at This Is Scunthorpe

Her.Stories: interviews with women filmmakers, acquisitions, and the French teach Hollywood about female talent

Her.Stories is a reboot of the Women’s Stories Weekly occasional series which was started in 2011.  Visit the Her.Stories page to peruse the archives.

Round Table: Julie Delpy, Ava DuVernay and Leslye Headland on directing
in the Los Angeles Times

Cinema Libre Studio secures rights to ‘Lemon’ doc
at indieWIRE

Sophia Takal’s ‘Green’ picked up by Factory 25
at indieWIRE

Quote of the Day: Emma Stone points out sexist double standards in media
at Bitch Flicks

Mia Hansen-Love, a firmly ambiguous filmmaker
in the Toronto Star

Marjane Satrapi on ‘Chicken with Plums’ (and her other work)
at Think Progress

Mary Ann Williamson on her short film, ‘Packed’
at Westword

As Executives, Women must Stop Assimilating (How to empower women in Hollywood)
in the New York Times

Finance, Track, Research and Promote (How to empower women in Hollywood)
in the New York Times

Women directors surpass gender politics in showbiz
at Wonderwoman

Hollywood’s Unsung Scouts: THR Profiles Six Hot Casting Directors (most are women)
in The Hollywood Reporter

French film fest fetes female talent  
at SF Gate

Women’s Stories Weekly

Femme filmmakers battle intolerance: Jerusalem Film Festival faces religious fundamentalists (See most recent Her Film post for more details)
at Variety

Give the Bollywood woman some respect!
at Rediff

Director Lisa Cholodenko Elected to Board of AMPAS
at SheWired

A look at female film-making: Kinofilm showcase best of women’s cinema in North West
at Mancunian Matters

Louis C.K. on Daniel Tosh’s Rape Joke: Are Comedy and Feminism Enemies?
at The Daily Beast

25 New Faces of Independent Film
at Filmmaker Magazine