Recent advocacy and protest efforts in Hollywood such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have led to an Academy that recognizes more diverse stories and highlights traditionally marginalized communities. We applaud the inclusion of films like Get Out, Lady Bird, and The Florida Project in this year’s Oscar field.
However, behind the scenes, Hollywood still has a long way to go.
Exploitation of all kinds is alive and well in the entertainment industry. In a business where employees are told time and again that they are replaceable, that there is always someone else willing to do the job for lower wages and fewer benefits, true equality feels nearly impossible. This is why we have to fight injustice and root out exploitation wherever it occurs.
In the case of the film, Dunkirk, this means prison labor. Christopher Nolan’s film, up for eight Academy Awards on Sunday night, not only used the labor of inmates in the production of the film, but included that fact as an anecdote in a companion book for the film. In Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, set decorator Gary Fettis is quoted celebrating the exploitation of incarcerated people in the making of the film:
“The amount of work needed led to some interesting collaboration. The big fenders on the ships, they use giant rubber balls nowadays, but back then they were made out of rope woven in thick hemp. We had to make about ten of them. He knew how to weave these bumpers. And he employed prison labour to make them. First time offenders, kids, they weren’t hard-core criminals...I hope the producers know, because we saved a lot of money that way.”
Incarcerated offenders make between 16-93 cents an hour for their labor, according to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
The film has taken in $525 million so far on a $100 million budget.
In the view of DSA-LA’s Labor Committee and the Hollywood Labor Project, this brings up two vital issues in the modern labor struggle. First, prison labor is unacceptable in any form. It is a human rights abuse. Human rights organizations across the world agree on that point. Second, every position on a Hollywood film crew should be unionized. Not only were union employees denied these jobs, prison labor was additionally exploited while producers and investors enjoyed a $400 million profit.
Every job is important and every worker deserves a union.
Dunkirk is not an anomaly, but a particularly egregious example of a systemic problem. In the entertainment industry, profits are too often put above people, and the creation of art is used as an all too convenient excuse for exploitation.
The Hollywood Labor Project will continue to work for an equitable world both in front of and behind the camera. Exploiting workers on a major motion picture is not a promotional achievement, but rather, a mark of shame. The Academy should disqualify Dunkirk from award consideration and set a precedent for similar future transgressions against entertainment workers.
A film that cannot be produced while respecting the humanity of everyone involved does not deserve to be made.
The Hollywood Labor Project is a collective of entertainment workers that understand that while the industry had some hard conversations in 2017, there's so much more that needs to be addressed to make a truly inclusive, equitable Hollywood. Namely, that the transformation that we want in the industry can't come from a high-level producer or studio, but from the workers themselves, demanding and fighting for it.
Join us and help create the Hollywood we deserve. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.