British director Ken Loach is known for championing the disenfranchised and working class in his TV docudramas and films, and shading universal social, political and economical issues with hand-held-camera realism, left-wing principles and personal intimacy. With the bittersweet Bread and Roses, he applies these sensibilities with only moderate success to the Justice for Janitors cause that was born in Los Angeles in 1988, made headlines when police beat protesters in 1990, and is still struggling to unionize custodians as we catch up with it 10 years later.
Bread and Roses is the first film Loach has set and made in America since cutting his teeth in the 1960s with the BBC police series Z-Cars. Maybe, after 35 years in cinema, he’s finally gotten too close to Hollywood for his own welfare. Gone is the unrelenting grip of My Name Is Joe, his 1999 peer into addiction and honesty. In its place he precariously juggles substance and entertainment as minority workers choose between security and solidarity, the status quo and an unknown future.
Bread and Roses has several explosive scenes but does not sustain either tone or a sense of urgency. Heart clashes—instead of coalesces—with humor. Issues are oversimplified in the name of plot. People feel like off-the-shelf characters (the evil supervisor, the nice but rather clueless suitor, the sacrificial lamb), and the story becomes more of a union procedural than an exploration of personal challenge and growth.
The action begins with the entry of illegal aliens into the United States at the Mexican border. “Shut the f—- up! Get under the blanket!” is the harsh wake-up call for these American Dreamers as flesh smugglers stuff them into a van and drive them to a drop site. All the émigrés are united with friends or family except Maya (played by Mexican stage actress Pilar Padilla). Her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo, from Salvador and The Border) does not have the final cash payment for the covert operation so one of the oily cretins takes Maya home with plans of raping her.
Maya escapes with her abductor’s boots in hand ("the coolest in Tijuana,” he had bragged) and reaches her sister’s home. After first working in a bar, she gets hired as janitor alongside her sibling at a Century City office building. She then crosses paths with union activist Sam (Son of Sam‘s Adrien Brody) and pushes for her sister and others in her building to organize and protest their poverty level wages and lack of benefits.
Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty have developed quite a partnership. Laverty used his experiences as a human rights attorney in Nicaragua to pen Carla’s Song for Loach, and also wrote My Name is Joe. Here they kick off the picture with a harrowing foot race across the border and kidnapping, but Maya’s contrived escape and gesture of defiance conflict with initial mood and grit.
This pattern continues as Maya meets Sam (she rather hides him in her cleaning cart from security guards), and Sam leads supporters to disrupt the lunch of a building manager (Sam rather whimsically sips the manager’s wine as the incident escalates). Other scenes (an African-American woman teaching Maya how to vacuum, Sam bumping heads with his own boss) do not reach their full potential, while still others (a protest dance, a jailhouse scene) are over-romanticized. In contrast, the most powerful scene of the film, a confrontation between Rosa and Maya, fills a somewhat singular purpose rather than elevating the film as an entity.
The film gets its name from the slogan of the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, protest in which 10,000 workers (mostly women) fought against poor wages. The intermittent petals of truth ("Uniforms make us invisible,” says one disgruntled custodian) reminded me that Norma Rae, Matewan and El Norte had been here before with stronger conviction. More power to those Davids here who are courageous enough to battle the Goliath inequities of the world, but I need more resonant passion and less quirky charm and didactic spillage.