Bread and Roses (2000)


By Jonathan Beebe

Foreign Voices

What I love most about Ken Loach’s films are the voices he gives us. It’s rare to hear in his films the standard British accent we get in most British productions. Loach is one of the few filmmakers (along with Mike Leigh) who actually gets his characters speaking accurately, in language you might hear in the real world. Since most of his protagonists come from the working-class in Britain and Ireland, their accents are completely foreign to me, anything but the genteel voices I grew up hearing in Mary Poppins and Lawrence of Arabia. If you’ve not seen a film by Ken Loach, try to remember David Niven’s or Alec Guinness’s voice and then imagine the exact opposite.

These accents are important to Loach’s films because he’s most concerned with portraying working class lives in as realistic a way as possible. With films like Ladybird Ladybird and My Name is Joe, he’s trying to make visible and audible an underclass all too often ignored in movies. Consequently, an American viewer like me sees—and hears—in his films something I’ve not been exposed to before. This is why I was eager to see Loach’s new film, set on U.S. soil. I wanted him to show me something about my country that I wasn’t accustomed to hearing and seeing. In Bread and Roses, he does just that, although in a way that I had not anticipated.

The film centers on a young Mexican, Maya (Pilar Padilla), who illegally crosses the border into Southern California in order to be with her sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carillo), who had come over years before. Maya struggles to find work without official papers, and finds herself manipulated and exploited in job after job. Rosa eventually finds Maya a regular position at the cleaning company where she works, although it comes at the price of a full month’s salary. Soon Sam (Adrien Brody), a representative of the organization Justice for Janitors, shows up, trying to convince the workers to unionize, and it’s through this struggle that we see Maya come to political awareness.

In many ways, Bread and Roses is not very different from Loach’s British films, concerned with representing the working class and the social institutions that serve them so inadequately. What I find most interesting about the film, though, once again goes back to voice. In Britain, accent maps onto social class in a much more systematic way than it does in the States. (This is what drives My Fair Lady, for instance, with Eliza Doolittle continuously repeating, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain,” as a way of advancing social class.)

In the States, accent also has meaning, but in a different way. It is not as closely tied to ideas of class as much as it is to geographical region, race, and ethnicity and, even among these categories, different voices mean different things. In the first case of geographical region, an accent is less invested with value. This is not to say that regional accent never has anything to say about class, especially as the accent gets thicker. (In Silence of the Lambs, for instance, Clarice Starling continuously tries to shed her southern twang in order to hide the fact that she grew up on a farm.)

It’s when we get to voices that code (according to current stereotypes) as non-white that class comes much more readily into the mix. And so, when Ken Loach decided to turn his gaze on the U.S., I think it makes a lot of sense that he chose to give us voices that much of the time do not even speak English. Using a Mexican immigrant to talk about class in America, Loach explores the ways that race and ethnicity are intricately bound to questions of empowerment and wealth. The issue is complicated even more by the fact that Rosa cannot possibly represent the varieties of disenfranchised people who find themselves in similar situations in the U.S. She can’t represent Hispanic Americans in a broad sense, because they come from numerous backgrounds and cultures. Just because she speaks Spanish does not mean that she feels much in common with people from other South American countries. And yet, much of the time this is how she is looked at by the white characters in the film. They see her as “other,” regardless of the particularities of her own situation.

It’s this type of reaction that comes closest to duplicating the limiting nature of class in Britain. In the U.S., you can be anything you want to be—despite impoverished beginnings—as long as you don’t look a certain way and as long as you don’t talk a certain way. Because his protagonist doesn’t even speak English for more than half of the film, Loach emphasizes that many Americans are not living in a land of “freedom and plenty.” We don’t even speak the same language, both literally and in the sense that our daily lives involve very different considerations. To borrow from the title, one American population smells “roses,” while another struggles for “bread.”

Because Loach is British, he is able to look at the U.S. without many of the preconceived notions most American directors buy into. He offers a compelling picture of what it means to be blocked from full access to the public sphere. Being from the outside, though, does have its drawbacks: in some senses, Loach never really gets to know his characters. He observes the multiplicity of immigrant experience and the exploitation of workers, but his vision seems simplified at moments. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that unions, for instance, do not always represent the best interests of their members. It doesn’t spend enough time looking at Rosa’s resistance to the union despite her own struggle to send money—any way she can—back to her family in Mexico. Most glaringly, the film doesn’t think in any systematic way about the implications of its choice of an illegal alien to be the hero of this American tale. The film never really explores what it means for Maya to struggle for representation in a country where she does not hold citizenship. While she embodies what it even means to refer to someone living in the U.S. as “illegal,” it still might be too easy for a viewer to dismiss the exploitation Maya faces, by attributing it to her “illegal” status, rather than realizing that legal aliens and full citizens are disenfranchised daily.

Despite its occasional over-simplification, however, Bread and Roses is a powerfully affecting film. Loach reveals American lives that are not always seen. For this fact alone, one can forgive him the occasional agitprop (at least I can, when it’s agitprop with which I tend to agree). He makes audible voices that many Americans are unwilling to listen to for all sorts of complex reasons. It’s not just that people treat Maya the way they do because of racism or classism alone.

The film shows how racism can become a type of classism. We’re used to seeing media images of racial or ethnic subpopulations associated with an economic underclass, while being perpetually forced into that underclass all the time by any number of factors. It’s when you look at any given “other” in terms of the several discourses out of which it is constructed that you are able to see the people behind the preconception. This is primarily what Loach offers us—a way to understand and listen to the U.S. populations who are usually not welcome as citizens. Of course, he wants us to do more than just listen, but his portrayal of Maya’s quest to be counted is a significant start.

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