Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


A Moment in the Sun
By John Sayles
McSweeney’s, 2011

In a 955-page novel, Sayles captures a major slice of American history from a working class perspective. During a five-year period at the end of the 1800s, his vivid characters are involved in the U.S. war with Spain over the Philippines and Cuba, the gold rush in the Yukon, continuing battles over racism in the South, and much more.


Black California
Edited by Aparajita Nanda
Heyday, 2011

Contributors to this anthology that begins with the founding of California and moves to the present day include many well known African-American writers, from Langston Hughes and Chester Himes to June Jordan and Devorah Major.


Death of the Liberal Class
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2011

In a convincing and bitter rant, a former New York Times reporter details how the corporate elite has defeated and co-opted the Democratic Party, universities, the news media, unions, religious institutions, and other pillars of the liberal class that once provided a buffer between working people and raw corporate power. Like most recent books about the sorry state of the world, it does not end with suggestions of what to do.


Local Economic Development in the 21st Century
By Daphne T. Greenwood and Richard P.F. Holt
M.E. SharpE, 2010

In very readable prose aimed at community activists and public officials, two economics professors argue that “economic development” can no longer simply mean attracting big corporations on whatever terms they dictate but must take into account environmental sustainability, quality of life, and economic and social equity.


Re:Imagining Change
By Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning
PM Press, 2010

This short paperback is a useful tool to help activists think about campaign strategy and how to effectively frame issues.


Roses for Isabella
By Diana Cohn, illustrated by Amy Cordova
SteinerBooks, 2011

In this beautifully illustrated children’s book, a young girl in Ecuador tells about her life. Her parents work on a large farm that grows roses for export to the U.S. They recently switched from a farm where they were exposed to toxic chemicals to a Fair Trade producer that provides a safer work environment and pays more. A teaching guide is also available.


The Fear Within
By Scott Martelle
Rutgers University Press, 2011

Throughout American history, crises have been exploited to take away freedom of speech from those whose beliefs challenge powerful economic interests. A former Los Angeles Times reporter looks back at the 1949 trial of the leaders of the Communist Party U.S.A. who were prosecuted not for actions they had taken but for their ideas and beliefs. His goal is not to lionize the defendants, but to remind Americans, in the age of the Patriot Act, how easily our freedoms can be taken away in the name of protecting them.


The Great American Stickup
By Robert Scheer
Nation Books, 2011

The editor of Truthdig provides one of the most readable accounts yet of how Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama allowed Wall Street to enrich itself while jeopardizing most Americans’ economic security.


The Man Who Never Died
By William M. Adler
BloomsBury, 2011

Joe Hill, the subject of the famous song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” was a songwriter for the International Workers of the World who was executed in 1915 by Mormon authorities in Utah for a murder he did not commit.


The Ringer
By Jenny Shank
Permanent Press, 2011

This engaging novel is based on an actual incident in which Denver police mistakenly killed an innocent Mexican immigrant. The story begins with the killing and follows the families of both the victim and the police officer who was responsible.



Where Men Win Glory
By Jon Krakauer
DoubleDay, 2009

This may be the best introductory book on the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The core of it is the story of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who volunteered to serve in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman was killed by friendly fire—a fact the Pentagon and Bush White House deliberately covered up. Krakauer provides a gripping account of Tillman’s life, warts and all; the circumstances of his death; and the attempt to exploit him as a martyr supposedly killed in battle. At the same time, the book provides thorough yet accessible historical background behind Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan.


Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights
Edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard
The New Press, 2011

This anthology of writings by many of the leading progressive media critics provides thoughtful perspectives on how Americans will get information in the future, how to promote a diversity of voices, and whether there is still an important role for professional journalists.


www.amigomovie.com, 2011

John Sayles’s new film is set in a village in the Philippines in 1900. The U.S. has taken the country from Spain and made it an American territory. Insurgents are fighting to regain control of their nation. The war’s principal effect, Sayles suggests, was to make many in the younger generation of Filipinos hate the United States. Some viewers may see parallels to America’s more recent wars.


www.newday.com, 2010

The unusual way this documentary is made makes it particularly interesting. The subject is the popular movement in Japan from the end of World War II to the present day to protest the continued presence of large scale U.S. military bases. The story is told not by a narrator but through interviews with Japanese painters, photographers, and filmmakers, along with images from their work related to this subject.


Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos
www.bullfrogfilms.com, 2009

More than a thousand workers from a town in Guatemala have moved to Jupiter, a coastal town in Florida. Jupiter responded by creating a center where immigrants can learn English, get training, and connect with employers. Some local residents object, saying the center encourages law breaking and drives down wage levels. This hour-long documentary, shot in both communities, shows why the Guatemalans come and gives voice to all perspectives on the immigration issue.


Even the Rain
www.Eventherainmovie.com, 2010

This innovative feature tells the story of a Spanish crew that is making a dramatic film to show the truth about the conquest of the Americas. They decide to shoot their film in Bolivia where they will be able to pay most of the actors only two dollars a day. Their film, as we see it being shot, succeeds in bringing the conquest alive from the natives’ point of view. But the production schedule is threatened when one of the indigenous people the directors hired as an actor becomes involved in leading protests against the government over access to drinking water. The film we are watching and the film within it become intertwined as the directors’ core values are challenged.


I Am a Man
www.iamamanthemovie.com, 2009

A twenty-seven-minute documentary features participants, as well as their descendants, from the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King was visiting when he was killed. The strike, sparked by the deaths of two workers on an unsafe truck, added momentum to a nationwide drive for unionization and better treatment for city and county workers who were paid poverty wages. The film and a study guide can be downloaded from the project’s website.


Locked Out
www.lockEdout2010.org, 2011

This hour-long documentary shows, from beginning to end, a four-month battle by nearly six hundred borate miners in a remote desert town in California against drastic takeaways demanded by Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world.


The Welcome
www.thewelcomethemovie.com, 2011

Several dozen U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam (nearly all of them white) met for several days and, with the help of a professional facilitator, talked and wrote poignant stories and poems about their traumatic experiences during and after their service. This should be a must-see film for all non-veteran Americans to get a glimpse of this aspect of the damage these wars are doing.


There But for Fortune
www.firstrunfeatures.com, 2011

Phil Ochs was one of the most influential songwriters of the 1960s. His songs became anthems of the anti-war and social justice movements, but as the social upheaval of that period lost momentum, he became depressed and plagued by alcoholism until, at age thirty-five, he committed suicide. The film is a touching requiem for the man and the movement he was part of.


Unnatural Causes
www.newsreel.org, 2008

Americans’ health and life expectancy are closely related to whether they have a job, how much money they have, where they live, and the color of their skin. A seven-part series documents this reality that has been largely unmentioned in national and state-level debates about health care reform. One segment is an hour long and the others a half-hour each.


William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
www.disturbingtheuniverse.com, 2009

Kunstler was one of the most important lawyers of the 1960s and 1970s, from major civil rights cases to the Chicago 8 to the Attica prison revolt to the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. This profile was made by his daughters, Sarah and Emily, who are activists themselves. They use their special access to present a nuanced portrait of a controversial figure whose choices many people, including friends and family, did not always agree with.

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent non-profit that operates www.TheWorkSite.org, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.