by Whit S
Sure, we can read The Sopranos as an epic tale of capitalism in North Jersey, and recent regionally-shot films like Halle Berry’s Bruised or even Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story as parables of class, among other things. But there’s a deeper history of explicitly class-struggle cinema in North Jersey— this is just the tip of the iceberg, but here’s a quick survey of some films that are all available free online:
The Passaic Textile Strike (1926): The 1926-27 textile workers’ strike in Passaic, Garfield, and Clifton was, as historian Jacob Zumoff notes, “the first mass workers’ struggle in which the Communist Party played a lead role.” Part of that effort included this silent film, used for both propaganda and fundraising. Opening with a fictional prologue, it’s mostly documentary, and invaluable as a record of North Jersey labor radicalism. Read Zumoff’s recent book The Red Thread for a deep dive on why the strike, although ultimately unsuccessful, carries ongoing historical significance (https://youtu.be/b0gr8H-VHyQ).
Troublemakers (1966): In 1964, the leading organization of the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society, moved from college campuses into economically depressed urban areas in an attempt to forge “an interracial movement of the poor.” This portrait of the Newark branch details the challenges of building participatory democracy, when campaigns for basic housing rights or even stop signs become insurmountable struggles, and it’s also unflinching about the challenges of solidarity when middle-class college-aged white people try to organize in the poor and Black community of Clinton Hill. I won’t spoil where it all ends up, but suffice it to say, its release in 1966 coincided with a rising sense that the New Left needed to further radicalize (https://vimeo.com/244908853).
With No One to Help Us (1967): What people remember about Newark in 1967 are riots/rebellion. This short documentary offers an alternate take: Black women in Clinton Hill forming a buyers club to counter exploitative merchants with collective power. Showing heart-wrenching debates and the constant precarity of group cohesion, it offers an exemplary case study of what mutual aid can look like with a focused campaign that avoids pre-figurative floundering. An important corrective to the broader marginalization of Black women in the cinematic history of the US left, too (https://vimeo.com/241205041).
The Case of the Legless Veteran (1981): James Kutcher isn’t a household name, but as a disabled World War II vet who was fired in 1948 from his job at the Newark Veterans Administration office for belonging to the Socialist Workers Party, he endured a harrowing eight- year legal battle—which he eventu- ally won, meaning that a socialist in Newark played a key role in defeating the repressive red scare that swept the nation in the 1950s. Stylistically, this is a meat-and-potatoes documentary that approaches the case through a national lens, so you won’t get rich New Jersey footage (you get a bit more from Kutcher’s 1953 autobiography of the same title, though Robert Justin Goldstein’s book about the case, Discrediting the Red Scare, has more to say about the SWP)—but as a bonus, you do get the pioneering leftist journalist I.F. Stone as a talking head (https://youtu.be/9sbdlIdt9HY).
Street Echoes (1983): In 1975, documentarian Robert Newman made the short Paterson, whose captivating visuals are derailed by excessive centering of bootlicking, pro-police judges and politicians. It’s on the Internet Archive and worth watching (https://archive.org/details/Paterson), but more interesting is Hector Alers’ Street Echoes, shot on Super-8mm and sponsored by the city Department of Recreation. It’s also a bit ideologically muddled, and you’ve got to be patient with low-fidelity audiovisual quality, but its unvarnished DIY depiction of proletarian youth delivers a striking portrait of North Jersey life in the early 1980s (https://archive.org/details/StreetEchoes_518)
Bonus film: Lianna (1983) isn’t streaming for free, and it’s a movie about a woman coming out as a lesbian written and directed by a straight man—but John Sayles has always been one of our most class-conscious filmmakers, from his novel Union Dues (1977) to the strike film Matewan (1987), and Lianna shows the literal costs of coming out in the early 1980s, in terms of downward mobility, while also showing Hoboken in all its glory. So, honorary mention for this list.