Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Scene from 1940 adaptation of Grapes of Wrath picturing family assembled

For sheer artistry alone, The Grapes of Wrath merits frequent viewing, but at this moment it’s startlingly relevant. Photo: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, cropped from original.

With unemployment now reaching levels not seen since the 1930s, should you really want to spend a few hours immersed in the hardships endured by working people during the first Great Depression? Yes.

If you’ve never seen the classic 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath—or last did decades ago—turn off the news for a bit and join the Joad family on their American odyssey. You might just find yourself more energized to confront our current crisis, especially once you discover some of the history the movie omits.

While cinema scholars revere The Grapes of Wrath, it’s sometimes left off lists of great labor films. That could be because its celebrated director, John Ford, developed a reputation as a reactionary Republican. Yet Ford creates in The Grapes of Wrath a lyric tribute to the working class.

Adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel, the film brings into intimate focus one of the greatest social upheavals in history: the grim exodus of hundreds of thousands of “Okies,” forced off the land throughout the dust-choked Great Plains, headed to that land of illusory opportunity, California. Few films have so deftly laid bare the ugliness of poverty while upholding the inherent dignity of poor people.

For sheer artistry alone, The Grapes of Wrath merits frequent viewing, but at this moment it’s startlingly relevant. Like global warming, the Dust Bowl was as much an economic as an environmental phenomenon, the effects felt by working people while big business (and big agriculture) reaped the rewards.

But responsibility for such human and ecological catastrophe was then—and continues to be—purposely obscured in a tangled web of corporate and financial interests. “Then who do we shoot?” the Joads’ neighbor Muley cries in frustration when he can’t get a satisfactory answer about who has sent the bulldozers to flatten his home and drive his family off the land. “Bein’ born on it, and workin’ it, and dyin’ on it,” Muley insists, “that’s what makes it ourn—and not no piece of paper with writin’ on it!”

Muley is wrong, of course: in America working on something, no matter how many years you’ve invested and how much labor you’ve expended, does not mean you have any rights to it. You need money and the piece of paper for that.

THAT UGLY SYSTEM

The word “capitalism” is never uttered in The Grapes of Wrath, but there’s no better depiction of an economic system that regulates labor by displacement, obliging workers to move where they are required and discarding them when they become superfluous (or too demanding), in the process destroying communities and erasing generations of history.

So while the Joads are migrants within their own country, they share much with today’s global immigrant population, including the scorn the dispossessed sometimes provoke among those who are just slightly better off. “Okies got no sense or no feeling,” remarks a gas station attendant, after the Joads have driven away. “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do.”

Once in California, the Joads’ hope for steady work and fair pay evaporates in the face of the exploitation and intimidation common to the big growers. Yet there is one place where they find sanctuary: a camp for farm laborers run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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ORGANIZING IN A PANDEMIC

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Here migrant workers are treated—and thus allowed to behave—not only as human beings, but as citizens with rights. The government facility provides clean sleeping quarters and washrooms with toilets and showers; dances are held regularly; children play safely; the local police are denied entry unless they produce a warrant. Moreover, the camp is governed, justly and effectively, by elected committees of the workers themselves.

The Grapes of Wrath thus offers a ringing endorsement of the New Deal, making the case that the fulfillment of democracy requires that public power serve as a bulwark against private greed: another lesson with clear relevance today.

A PREACHER-ORGANIZER

There are a host of memorable characters, but labor activists will be especially drawn to the central figures of Tom Joad and the erstwhile preacher Jim Casy. In California Casy becomes a strike leader encouraging Tom to recognize an obligation beyond his family, to see that there is “one big soul that belongs to everyone.” For Tom, Casy “was like a lantern; he helped me see things clear.” In other words, Casy was an organizer. In one of cinema’s most stirring moments, Tom parts from his mother to fight for the larger family—the working class—he has come to realize he belongs to.

It is Ma Joad, however, whose words conclude the film. “We’re the people,” she says. “Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us.”

Ultimately The Grapes of Wrath emphasizes resilience, rather than resistance, and indeed “union” is another word that’s never spoken. In that respect, the movie disregards what was actually occurring in California during the Great Depression. In 1933 alone, 37 major agricultural strikes took place in the state, most of them involving the left-wing United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America; work stoppages, some of them successful, continued through the decade.

And while The Grapes of Wrath paints a sublime portrait of working-class heroism, it’s rendered exclusively in shades of white. Organizing in the fields then included the Mexicans, Japanese, and Filipinos who had long been the mainstay of California’s agricultural workforce (indeed, as early as 1903 Japanese and Mexican workers united to wage a successful strike in Oxnard), along with African Americans who had also migrated west, and women often took leadership roles.

RESILIENCE

It was through such solidarity, in fact, that people like Tom Joad truly came to see that they were part “of one big soul.” As longtime labor and Communist Party activist Dorothy Healey described it, “all their lives they’d been on a little farm in Oklahoma; probably they had never seen a black or a Mexicano. And you’d watch in the process of a strike how those white workers soon saw that those white cops were their enemies and that the black and Chicano workers were their brothers.”*

So by all means take in The Grapes of Wrath, and be uplifted by its cinematic eloquence and enduring relevance. But realize—as is the case with most Hollywood efforts—that when it comes to working people, a lot of the important stuff has been left out. To overcome, rather than simply endure, injustice, the word “union” needs to be in the script.

*This quote comes from Vicki Ruiz’s labor history, Cannery Women, Cannery Lives.

The Grapes of Wrath is available for rent on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and elsewhere. Toni Gilpin is the author of the new book The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland.