British director Ken Loach, a man who would rather be trading class-war stories with Chilean socialists, Spanish Civil War veterans or battle-scarred Sandinistas than lunching with Jeffrey Katzenberg any day, has made his L.A. movie at last. And those who know his work won’t be surprised that the action takes place as far from Beverly Hills as it‘s possible to go without actually leaving town. Bread and Roses is set in a parallel Los Angeles of immigrant Latino workers that Hollywood filmmakers rarely see — even though such people sweep their floors, valet their cars and raise their children — and who only appear in their movies as the help.
The lively, innovative, Service Employees International Union–backed Justice for Janitors campaign that forms the backdrop to Bread and Roses may be a decade old now, but it’s never registered on Hollywood‘s radar. As he did with Land and Freedom (which deals with the Spanish Civil War), Carla’s Song (Nicaragua), Hidden Agenda (Northern Ireland) and his socialist TV drama Days of Hope (the British General Strike of 1926), Loach attacks complex political issues that scare — or worse, bore — most mainstream directors shitless.
Bread and Roses explores the political awakening of a powerless individual. Maya (Pilar Padilla) is first seen being roughly escorted across the U.S.-Mexico border by rapacious coyotes. Soon she‘s working as a nonunion cleaner in a downtown high-rise that houses banks, finance companies and law firms: The place is a vertical sweatshop after 5 p.m. Her co-workers are Latino and black women who are almost invisible to the yuppies whose trash cans they empty. They’re mostly immigrants with poor English and a not-unreasonable fear of their thuggish supervisor, Perez (played by L.A. comedian George Lopez), who demands sexual favors and paycheck kickbacks and will happily fire them on a whim.
Into this treacherous environment comes charismatic SEIU labor activist Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), first seen by Maya as he dodges building security in his hunt for a printed roster of janitors‘ names. Little by little he persuades the reluctant cleaners to think about unionizing their workplace, agitating for health benefits and paid holidays, and using their untapped inner strength and class solidarity as weapons of survival. Loach is under no illusions about the dangers of organizing: Perez fires anyone who even thinks union. It’s Maya — tiny, tough, fearless — who emerges as a leader as her political consciousness is slowly aroused.
Though Loach disavows cinematic formalism as a self-regarding diversion from political concerns, he has a recognizable style all his own — call it an anti-style — rooted in an organic creative process that values improvisation (as usual, his cast is largely amateur) and happy creative accidents, and results in a realism that resembles documentary footage. His films always take care to be comprehensible and rewarding, not just to middle-class wankers like movie critics, but to the people his movies are actually about.
Loach‘s familiar flaws are less evident here than in, say, the insufferably didactic Hidden Agenda, which was lousy with ill-digested agitprop and populated by speechifying political ciphers. He has the romantic socialist’s weakness for smoldering Latin women who only sleep with politically right-on males, and occasionally a surfeit of political pedagogy (“40 percent of Americans are uninsured . . .”) will mar the carefully contrived realism like a scratch on a record. And like his compatriot Mike Leigh, he tends to reduce his middle-class characters to one-note cartoons. Loach and Leigh — one an Oxford University law graduate, the other a doctor‘s son — may not be wankers, but they are most assuredly middle-class, which suggests an element of guilty self-hatred on both their parts.
Still, these tics and tropes, which have earned Loach a reputation for preachiness, can’t undermine the power of Bread and Roses‘ progression from immiserization and defeat to sky-punching political triumph. Doctrinal socialism never gets in the way of emotional honesty and compassion: There are scenes here that fill one with rage or bring tears to the eyes, in particular a harrowing confrontation between Maya and her pragmatic sister, Rosa, in which the latter reveals the sexual degradation she has endured in order to support her family in Mexico. The setbacks, detours and frustrations of the organizing process are detailed in ways that are complex, frustrating and never alienating or strident.
For Loach, the flowering of a dormant political consciousness is an essential aspect of human self-fulfillment. Often in his work the process is held back by pessimism and despair — one might legitimately accuse the idealistic Loach of preferring noble defeat to difficult, step-by-step compromise — but in Bread and Roses, as in the real Justice for Janitors campaign, the characters finally emerge victorious. Loach is still too much the realist to let Maya walk triumphantly off into the sunset, and her double-edged fate suggests that this is merely one battle in a never-ending campaign — that no matter how many victories the left racks up, the struggle never ends.