Film Review: The Hand that FeedsPuts a very human face on a problem all too commonly ignored.
The plight of undocumented immigrant workers fighting for fair wages and improved work conditions is movingly depicted in Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick's documentary, made all the more timely by the current debates over increasing the minimum wage. Chronicling a strike undertaken in 2012 by the workers of a New York City Upper East Side deli, The Hand That Feeds is an impassioned, socially themed documentary that may even succeed in swaying a few hearts and minds.
The filmmakers got lucky in having a likeable, camera-friendly personality at the forefront of the struggle. He's Mahoma López, a sandwich maker at the restaurant café catering to upscale Manhattanites. Fed up with the low wages and poor working conditions at the establishment—early in the film we see one employee displaying a $290 paycheck for his 60-hour workweek—Lopez decided to lead his fellow employees in a fight against management, asking for little more than minimum wage, overtime pay and safe working conditions.
Needless to say, it was not an easy battle. Picketing outside the restaurant, they received both encouragement and derision from passersby, the latter illustrated when one person is heard shouting, "Get a job, you commie scum." They never received a response to their complaint from the New York State Department of Labor, and the big unions turned them away because their shop was too small. They eventually went to the National Labor Relations Board and voted to form their own independent union; ironically, the voting took place in the same building housing the agency handling immigration enforcement. A further blow came when one of the workers' leaders abandoned the cause after receiving a financial settlement from the café's owners.
They eventually reached out to the then-burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement, with many of the young activists enthusiastically joining their ranks. It all thankfully results—spoiler alert—in a happy ending that is as rousing as it is seemingly implausible.
Infused with welcome doses of humor—handing out free food on the street, one of the strikers comments, "If bagels don't make us popular on the Upper East Side, nothing will"—the film provides a vivid reminder that even undocumented workers deserve fair compensation from their employers. Along with such recent similarly themed documentaries as Food Chains, about the struggles of migrant tomato pickers in Florida, it puts a much-needed spotlight on this important issue.--The Hollywood Reporter
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