In Dubious Battle

John Steinbeck wrote many novels to expose the plight of workers in the United States. Now Director James Franco has provided a version of Steinbeck’s 1936 novel, never before on the screen, and he plays the role of Mac, an agitator who goes to the Bolton Orchard in California to energize $1 dollar a day apple pickers to demand more than near-starvation wages. Before doing so, he befriends starry-eyed Jim Nolan (played by Nat Wolff), who joins to participate in a meaningful fight and learns a lot from Nolan. After the two get acquainted with the pickers, they find allies to join them in a strike that widens to include scabs brought in by Mr. Bolton (Robert Duvall). About 900 strikers pitch tents to hold out until their demands are met. Bolton counteroffers $1.20, but they refuse such a measly sum. The local county board of supervisors provides food but no mediation. During the long month of the strike, many tragic incidents occur but the pickers remain united until Bolton brings in the sheriff to get the pickers to stop trespassing on his property. Filmviewers who have read the novel and why Steinbeck wrote will guess the ending. Titles at the end suggest that Steinbeck’s book prompted Congress to pass the Wagner Act in 1937, making union organizing legal, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. Just why does James Franco choose to bring Steinbeck to the screen eighty years later? To quote what Franco once said, “I think it’s healthy to make work that disrupts and questions that, and shows alternative narratives. That’s what an artist should do.” Perhaps he had in mind that workers today are at a new crossroads, where unions have been weakened, and Congress has not increased the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. But there is no speculation about one matter: The Political Film Society has nominated In Dubious Battle for an award as best film of 2017 in the category of human rights. MA