Culture » Film

Justice for Janitors


Bread and Roses (R)
Lion's Gate Films

Bread and Roses isn't just a movie. It's a political tract. It's a heated and often persuasive argument for the unionization of janitors in Los Angeles delivered via a story of illegal immigrant workers fighting for their rights to a decent wage.

Mostly one-sided, the movie sometimes feels like pure dogma. But I suggest you see it -- let it preach to you and get under your skin. Though doctrinaire, Bread and Roses is an enlightening and moving social drama, highlighting workers' rights issues relevant in virtually every town in America.

Director Ken Loach (My Name is Joe) focuses his story on Maya (Pilar Padilla), an illegal immigrant newly arrived to Los Angeles. Her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) helps her find a job with a cleaning contractor in a large office complex downtown. It immediately becomes clear to Maya that she is suffering a series of disadvantages. Her wage is only $5.75 an hour. Her boss extorts money from her paycheck. Her hours are long and hard, and she receives no benefits or overtime. But because she is illegal, there is nothing she can do about any of this -- she's just grateful to have a job in America.

Until, that is, she meets Sam (Adrien Brody), a young activist for Justice for Janitors, a campaigning organization for fair wages and working conditions for custodians (the characters in Bread and Roses are fictional, but Justice for Janitors is a real organization founded in Denver). Sam convinces Maya and some of her co-workers to unite against their boss and demand decent wages, health benefits and the reinstatement of ex-employees who were fired unjustly.

This confrontation comes with great risks for the workers, of course. If they lose the fight, they lose their jobs. Worse, they will likely be blacklisted and unable to find new jobs. No work means (increased) poverty not just for them, but for their families in Mexico who rely on their help each month.

At one point, Maya asks Sam, "What are you risking?" He is silent in reply. Sam is white and college-educated. He can afford lofty political opinions. If things don't work out, he can simply work somewhere else. This truth pains Sam. He's not an empty liberal idealist. He wants solidarity with the Latino workers. His bookshelves are lined with Marx and Engels primers, but he's no mere theorist. Sam is a believer, and you get the feeling he'd happily sacrifice his life for one of these janitors.

Though we never hear a qualified argument for the position of the corporate executives -- they are portrayed as unfailingly narrow and stupid -- some of the workers themselves resist the idea of a revolution. Rosa, in particular, is resolutely opposed to the idea. In the movie's most stirring scene, she reveals to Maya that she whored for years just to get to the place where she is now. She may have a dreadful job, but she lost her dignity to get it, and she's determined to keep working.

Loach is, unfortunately, preaching to the choir. Most of us who see this movie are already convinced that the system is unfair, that the privileged class has little concern for low-income earners -- particularly illegal immigrants -- and that more should be done to protect workers' rights.

But that fact doesn't negate the power of this film. It's engrossing and provoking, a well-made film that plays like a docudrama and demands that its issues be taken seriously.

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