Worthy workplace dramas you must not miss on OTT
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Worthy workplace dramas you must not miss on OTT
Hia Datta
Aug 09, 2021

The worker-employer relationship is never a straight line but a curve with crests and troughs. The history of the labour movement in Europe dates back to 1968, in reaction to the hazards of industrial capitalism that replaced the agricultural revolution. In America, the earliest labour strike can be traced back to 1768, when the journeymen tailors in New York raised their voices against a wage reduction. 

And in India, while ordinary labour movements could be traced to the 1860s, the first labour agitation happened in 1875 in Bombay, over the deplorable working conditions of women and children workers. Labour struggles, while traced across different geographical territories and timelines, have the welfare of the workers and the protection of their rights as the defining causes. The inclusion of women’s rights into the labour struggles was a late and largely heterogeneous phenomenon worldwide but once the women strode into the workplace and realised their equal claim to equal labour rights, slowly but surely, there has been no looking back.

Good workplace dramas explore these concerns through the plotlines, among other aspects. Strikes, struggles at work, stiff work pressure, corruption are some of the issues, you name it, and you would find them sewn into the story inseparably. The setting itself is the workplace and everything going around it within the human condition. 

Here are a few worthwhile workplace dramas for you to binge-watch.

Salt of the Earth
Director Herbert J. Biberman and screenwriter Michael Wilson described this seminal workplace drama as ‘the first feature film ever made of labour, by labour, and for labour.’ Back in the 1950s, when capitalism and racial discrimination were rearing their heads stronger than ever in the US, the makers dared to breakthrough with this film. The producers and director of the film faced fire from the Hollywood establishment and were blacklisted thereafter. But the film itself, which squarely depicts the agency of workers couldn’t be muzzled and today is looked back as a precedent to neorealist workplace dramas or even in general, to films that have a distinct, firm political voice. Gender equality and communist inclinations are some of the key themes. The plot revolves around a difficult strike by the miners that was drawn from the 1951 strike against Delaware Zinc, the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico. Featuring real-life miners and their wives as actors, the film championed the right to equal pay and decent working conditions for the Mexican-American miners, like their Anglo counterparts through the main story of the protagonist, Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas), a miner’s wife in Zinctown. How all the parties involved, such as the police, the miners and the company officials react to and during the strike builds the conflict. Racial discrimination, unequal labour rights, sexism—sound familiar? There you go, these issues from the 1950s have travelled in time to relevance today too. All the more reason why you should watch the film that was foresightful about modern matters like gender equality and stood ground on its communist inclinations.
7.4OTTplay Rating
The 1986 British historical drama helmed by Bill Douglas centres on the Dorset farm labourers known as Tolpuddle Martyrs, who formed a labour union in protest against meagre subsistence wages. Shortly after they were arrested and deported to Australia in 1934. The film is split into two sections, the first one in their native England, and the second in Australia. Albeit it is a historical workplace drama, it isn’t overboard on historical minutiae and is stylistically significant as a lantern-ist’s account (as Douglas was an avid collector of lanterns and other pre-cinema devices), making use of magic lanterns in the film. Calling facts in an allusive way into the plotline, the film’s excellence lies in its blend of realism with an investigative style of cinematic techniques, and the very humanist pulse at the core, which in a way set the scene for modern-day labour disputes. It’s considered a cinematographic gem. While the pace of the film is slow for today’s audience, the substantial plot plods through that obvious dated element for a watch worth your while.
Glengarry Glen Ross
7.8OTTplay Rating
The film is drawn from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by David Mamet. The James Foley directorial starring Al Pacino, Jack Lemon, and Alec Baldwin, among others premiered at the 49th Venice Film Festival, where Lemon bagged the Volvi Cup for Best Actor. Al Pacino got nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. So much for a few deets, but coming to the storyline, you can’t get a better archetypical workplace drama than a film where on-the-job training in the office propels you to jump on to the cut-throat competition for the sake of your job. While in the film, the four real estate salesmen working in a real estate office are under trial by fire when a trainer is sent by the office to train them to ‘boost’ sales, which also involves unscrupulous tricks, the scenario is not a far-off fictive story that won’t touch us. Unhealthy workplace competition, poor work-life balance, the mad race to meet deliverables and targets, and more—it’s all very real in the here and now of modern-day workplaces of any industry.
North Country
7.1OTTplay Rating
This Niki Caro directorial starring Charlize Theron was drawn from the book Class Action: The Story of Louis Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The 2002 novel depicts the pioneering case of Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a single mother and among the first women miners at Eveleth Mines, a local iron mine in Minnesota after running away with her children from her abusive husband for a better life. The male miners cannot accept the fact of women working with them on equal footing and stoop low to aggressive lashing outs, a barrage of vocal insults, lewd remarks and even sexual harassment. Aimes forges solidarity with her female co-workers but her journey to ushering a safe workplace for women is uphill, made complex by few women who rather blame her for the crude, criminal conduct of their husbands. A local lawyer (Woody Harrelson) comes in to help bring out the ruling of the landmark new law, whose real-life counterpart filed the first sexual harassment lawsuit in the US in 1988 to uphold the cause of Lois Jenson and her fellow female miners at the EVTAC mine in Minnesota. Besides Theron’s pitch-perfect turn, Frances McDormand signifies the world of the woman miner down to the T. McDormand plays Glory, the only woman on the union negotiating committee. Although her character arc is gloomier than Aimes’, she is a woman of the world with her matter-of-fact, down-to-earth approach to matters in a roomful of men and knows how to get things done. Through this film, you can vicariously experience female workplace solidarity and the hazards faced by working women day in and day out and their taking on it all and turning it into a legal win-win for the greater good of the entire community of working women in the US. And, this mobilisation we are talking about, happened four decades before the #MeToo movement came to exist, making it that much more ground-breaking and powerful in time.
Made in Dagenham
7OTTplay Rating
Women had to cross a long road of struggle before the so-called male bastion of the ‘workplace’ could be reclaimed as their own space in their own right. And the struggle is still on, on many counts. The Nigel Cole directorial stars Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James, Rosamund Pike in key roles, to name a few. Chronicling on the fictionalised account of the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 that demanded equal pay for women for equal work as men. The feel-good, good-humoured drama softens the expected grimness and sombreness of the subject matter. While the cast is more glamourous than the real-life women, the film within the modes of its genre quite consciously subverts the paternalistic dichotomy of the spaces of the home and the world that the fairer sex has been cloistered for long. Sally is on-point as the working mother who is sure-footed, forthcoming. She rises to lead the strike as the striker-spokeswoman, locking horns with all the men in power. Richardson as Barbara Castle, the cabinet minister and out-and-out supporter of the agitating women is good too. For all the nonchalance and cheery cover, the film is an engaging take on the solidarity of workplace women as they strike their way quite literally to sensitizing the media and public through media coverage of the strike, political discussions, thus paving the indirect route to the Equal Pay Act of 1970, something which is ideally the prerequisite in workplaces today.
The Help
8.5OTTplay Rating
This 2011 workplace period drama, written and directed by Tate Tyler, is set in the home as the workplace. Starring a stellar cast comprising Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead roles along with others, the film centres on the lived experiences of black women in the 19060’s, who worked as nannies for the white women in Mississippi. The film bagged four Academy Award nominations that include Best Picture, Best Actress for Davis, Best Supporting Actress for Chastain and Spencer. And Spencer eventually clinched the award for the Best Supporting Actress. The Help also bagged the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The plotline is drawn from the novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett. White college graduate and young aspiring journalist Eugenia “Skeeter'' Phelan (Emma Stone) wants to uncover the racialised world that two Black housemaids Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson face, against the historical backdrop of the Civil Rights movement in 1963. The book that she looks to write will be her claim to journalistic fame, as it is in her head. The complexities and hypocrisies in the employer-maid relationship is laid bare, striking right at the root of the ‘the help’, the term that used to describe black women working as maids for white people in the 1960s. The makers have taken slight liberties from history, but the movie is a winning watch in so much that it has got its heart and heartfelt humour to deal with the subject in the right place, touching all the right chords.

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