It’s David versus Goliath and Goliath better watch out.
Battles like D vs G tend to capture audiences’ hearts and minds. In this case the small warrior is a band of blue-collar workers, and the hostile giant is the behemoth corporation Amazon. It’s on!
Directors Stephen Maing and Brett Story don’t put a lot of spit and polish on the footage. Nothing looks too glossy (cinematographer Martin Dicicco), the music isn’t overwhelming (Robert Aiki Aubrey Loew, Candyman) and the sound is just clear enough to hear the semi-private conversations and public declarations. It’s like you’re there, walking the picket lines, canvassing employees, barking back at security guards and stating a case for uniting to defy The Man.
At an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, lots of workers have a gripe, but only a few, so far, are willing to act. The leader of the organized dissention is Chris Smalls. Amazon likely views him as an ex, disgruntled employee. But this African American brother’s dismissal is not a unique event. As others are fired from their jobs, the list of workers ready for a fight grows. Egged on and shepherded by Smalls, they’re all determined to unionize Staten Island’s huge JFK8 – Amazon Fulfillment Center.
Film fans have seen it before. Sally Field won an Oscar® Award for Best Actress in 1980 for the 1979 movie Norma Rae. She dressed like a gutsy, enraged and determined textile worker fighting for employee rights. But that was so Hollywood. This is so Staten Island. Smalls and his band of rebels’ story unfolds like a drama. Not a bevy of interviews, or an elaborate collection of clips, or fluff. Their harsh existence pans out like a reality show where people’s livelihood and futures are actually on the line.
In a smart move, Maing and Story stay out of the way, yet make viewers feel included. Over the course of 1h 40m, audiences will get pretty ticked off at the thought of Jeff Bezos’ callous wealth and the crumbs he leaves his workers. In fact, the footage starts with the launch of the Amazon owner’s Blue Origin space vehicle blasting off into the sky. The sight of Bezos’ trophy toys versus workers huddling in a tent in the dead of winter trying to create an Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is both jarring and revealing.
The dynamics between Small and his team are family like, with multiracial, multicultural, male and female members. All on some level have experienced low pay, disrespect, few benefits. Some have been terminated for standing up for themselves. Says one: “I’m the one who got fired because I did the protest.” Worker issues, like union-busting scabs getting paid $2000 to $3000 a day to do jobs employees do for nickels, incenses them. Gender discrimination too. Execs plot against them and throw expensive lawyers in their path, but they’re not intimidated. “Right now, Amazon is on their high horse, and we want to punch them in the face. We stand up for ourselves.”
Petitions are signed, arrests made, nerves frayed. Intergroup friction, powerplays and betrayals cause heated arguments and fiery emotions. One woman unionizer has had enough: I can’t leave one boys’ club at Amazon and work for another boys’ club in the union.” Even with discord, the goal is still to have employees vote for or against unionizing. Can these beleaguered proletariats fight the system and become the first labor union at an Amazon location in the entire country?
Documentary-loving audiences will stay tuned long enough to find out who wins. Ditto for young adult viewers who will see in these Gen Z working-class heroes peers finally galvanizing around a cause.
Rarely would you want backstories in a doc, but these charcters could use some. Knowing their pasts would add depth to their being and explain how they arrived at this war. Smalls is the anti-hero. Not as educated or monied as some of the others. Yet he is a steadfast leader. An achiever. Willing to take risks. Even get jailed. Somehow, despite their differences, they all find ways to work together. They set an example for coalition building that others can follow as they unionize or even organize local political campaigns.
The filmmaking is low key, unpretentious. The band of rebels takes center stage, do their thing and reap the rewards. Smalls has a warning for the company that underestimates them and him: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going into space. When he was up there, we were signing people up.”
A ballsy, grassroots doc that chronicles a ballsy, grassroots group of Davids ready to slay a Goliath.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute and photo shot by Martin DiCicco
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Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.