Review of Bread and Roses by Ken Loach

Socialist View Spring 2001

Human traffickers lead a group of Mexicans to a waiting van that will bring them to the United States. After they cross the border, a young woman, Maya, glimpses the gleaming skyscrapers of Los Angeles. However, unlike many cinematic treatments of the immigrant experience, this is no celebration of the 'American dream'.

By Orla Drohan

The office blocks that house some of the world's most powerful banks and law firms are cleaned by low-paid workers with no benefits or job security. Undaunted, the mainly immigrant and female janitor workers begin to unionise, struggle and chant ' we want bread but we want roses too '.

Bread and Roses, the latest film from left-wing director Ken Loach, is inspired by the long running Justice for Janitors campaign. In city after city, janitors began to unionise and successfully demand higher wages, job security, holiday pay and medical coverage. Building owners and cleaning contractors fought them every step of the way.

In the early '90s, a janitors march in Los Angeles was savagely attacked by the police who injured several protesters. Actual footage of this demonstration is cleverly inserted in the film.

Delivered from the exploitative hands of the human traffickers, the film's main protagonist, Maya, goes to live with her married sister Rosa. Rosa finds her sister a job at a non-union cleaning contractor firm. Together, the sisters wash, vacuum, dust, polish and wax offices for little money and no benefits.

When Sam, a union organiser, tries to convince the sisters of the benefits of joining a union, their responses could not be more divergent. Rosa may be struggling to pay her husband's medical bills on poverty wages, but she is terrified of losing the little that she has.

Embittered by the harsh experiences of life, Rosa feels she cannot rely on anyone but herself. She tells her younger sister that the bosses are stronger than the workers and always have been.

Maya, however, still has enthusiasm and hope - she is willing to struggle. Bread and Roses skilfully explores the difficulties and divisions that arise when a largely immigrant workforce with no job security attempts to unionise. A rich human drama unfolds as each individual approaches the struggle with their own personalities, life histories, fears and ambitions.

A Russian immigrant rejects all resistance as madness and believes that somehow, tomorrow will be better than today. An older woman sends her wages back to her family in Latin America. A worker is offered a supervisor's job, the price of which is betrayal of her fellow workers. A young man has been saving for the last five years to fulfil his dream of going to university.

The film also recognises that the position of Sam, the union organiser is far from unproblematic. In many ways he is an outsider, a white American trying to unionise a mainly Latino workforce. He is also a salaried union employee trying to persuade low-paid workers to put their jobs on the line.

Rosa challenges Sam by asking him what he has to lose should the attempt at unionisation fail. Sam also comes into conflict with the Democrat-loving union bureaucrats who employ him and feel threatened by his enthusiasm and unorthodox methods of protest.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the treatment of the Latin American immigrant experience, particularly the experience of women immigrants. Sexual exploitation is juxtaposed with economic exploitation throughout the film.

Many cinematic treatments of Hispanic and Afro-American communities in the United States view characters solely thought the lens of ethnicity. In these films, oppression is caused by white people in general and not by capitalists in particular.

Significantly, Bread and Roses portrays the experiences and struggles of the workers in terms of class. Some of the most viscous exploiters in the film are themselves Latinos, like the truly obnoxious supervisor Perez.

The Latino janitors have their own cultural identity. They speak Spanish and dance to a wonderful soundtrack of Latino protest songs about the difficulty of being a 'wetback' in the United States. However, the Latinos also make common cause with their Afro-American co-workers and a white union organiser.

Ken Loach's documentary style, improvised dialogue and open-ended narrative lend to this film an energy, immediacy and authenticity that also characterises his other films. As is the case in many of his films, such as Raining Stones, Bread and Roses is punctuated by humour.

Much of the humour of the film derives from Maya's playfulness and sense of fun. Deriding the myth of the 'American dream', Maya writes to her mother from an office she has been cleaning in which she complains about the difficulty of finding servants.

Maya is an engaging central character with whom the audience will find it easy to identify. Sam also infuses humour and imagination into protest.

At one stage, janitors invade a business gathering of stuffed shifts and glamorous dresses with mops, vacuums, dusters and buckets. The business elite who ignore the janitors in day to day life are forced to sit up and take notice of them.

Ultimately, the originality of Bread and Roses lies in the way characters and situations ignored by mainstream cinema are placed centre stage. The struggle of the janitors to assert themselves in the face of marginalisation and exploitation makes a vibrant and radical human drama.

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