Captive in Capitalism: David Mamet's "Hoffa" (1993)

Submitted by dalcassian on 8 July, 2014 - 12:45

HOFFA" IS a type of film which is now as rare as pro-black movies once were. It is a Hollywood film about class in American capitalist society.

Rarer still: its viewpomt is strongly, if sometimes perversely, that of the working class. A sense of class, and of class oppression and even of working-class captivity, pervades the film, brooding over it, infecting even the landscape.

Most of the setpiece Acts or Scenes into which David Mamet's screenplay dissects this version of the life of James Hoffa, one-time leader of America's nearly two million strong Teamsters' (truck-drivers') union, seem to take place against a background of icy roads, banked snow, lowering skies or driving rain. There is even a sense in it of class hatred and of working-class will to fight the big and little tyrants of American factories, warehouses, ports and roadways - the class hate and the class will which produced the modern American labour movement

In one savagely brutal scene, strikers fight cops, scabs and vigilantes in a battle with fists and clubs which rages across an entire square. The camera focuses intermittently on a terrified, tearful, hungry boy of six or seven caught in the melee, and then, as the camera takes its leave of the scene, we are in a boardroom commanding the square, behind a senior police officer standing with grim and silent men in expensive suits who have been watching the battle from on high like ruling princes or gods.

The same sense of class antagonism, naked and abusive, is there, spittling and clawing, in the two big scenes between Hoffa and Robert Kennedy, who, as Attorney General, hounded him

Kennedy, young, shallow, a man who has had everything given to him, is out to make a name for himself. The life of American workers is as foreign to him as the life of the Eskimos. Hoffa the truck-driver snarls at his tormenter that he couldn't even get a job without his father's $200 million and his brother's incumbency in the White House! And yet it is the callow millionaire's son who wins in the end.

In the film the workers respond to Hoffa as to a tribune of the plebs. He is their champion. As he goes to jail, his prison van passes through a long double line of parked trucks, their drivers cheering and honking horns to cheer him up.

This Hoffa is, and knows himself to be, the champion of the oppressed in a world run by and for their oppressors. He says at one point: "I want justice, not law". He doesn't care about their rules and their laws.

With the persistent force of a half-wild bull, Hoffa blasts out a militant stop-at-nothing spirit of defiance and intransigence. There is them and there is us. His attitude is that of a revolutionary - but a revolutionary who has had his political eyes put out. Hoffa struggles against exploitation and oppression, and for better wages and conditions in a society that will never change. Everything in this world is bleak and grim, brutal and savage. Capitalism is forever. All the workers can hope to do is climb "into the middle class".

This Hoffa is Spartacus, Big Bill Haywood, a Wobbly travelllng organiser, or Jim Larkin - an elemental force evoking and organising revolt. But this is Jim Larkin up to his knees and sometimes up to his neck in corruption, in the shit and offal of mid 20th century America's Imperial Republic.

His first contact with the Mafia comes in negotiations to get strikebreaking Mafia goons off the back of embattled Teamsters. Hoffa buys them off with a promise that Teamsters' drivers will let them steal from their trucks. He links up with the armed gangsters on the illegal underside of capitalism the better to fight the armed gangsters - police, National Guard, vigilantes - who break drivers' heads on behalf of the "legitimate" ruling capitalists.

Anything goes in this war. Eventually, after serving a jail sentence, he has to appeal to the Mafia, who now decide union affairs, to "give me back the union". Now he is a threat: they blow his brains out. They don't need him any more. The imported mercenaries have made themselves masters of the country whose rulers sent for them as their protectors against other mercenaries.

This is a splendid, powerful drama, about a mythic labour leader, not history. But it is based on history, some of it very closely.

The real Jimmy Hoffa started his union life helping Trotskyists like Farrell Dobbs organise long-distance drivers. He ended his life as an associate of gangsters, and a man whose union bought his release from jail by throwing its political support behind Richard Nixon.

That life embodied and epitomiscd one of the two choices that lay before the US labour movement in the 1930s - the reformist option of living within capitalism, winning the best deal the workers could beg, beat, or blackmail out of the bosses and the bosses' government. The only other option was a fight to overthrow capitalism by way of a socialist revolution.

The "gangster" option, for all its colounul detail was one varlant of the reformist option - a version which, disregarding the rules and laws of the dominant exploiters, incorporated a perversion of part of the revolutionary option.

The testing time for the Teamsters came as the US prepared to go into the Second World War. The union boss, Daniel J Tobin, called in his friends in the Roosevelt administration to help him reclaim control of the Minneapolis local from the Trotskyists who had done so much to build the union. (Farrell Dobbs, who organised the unionisation drive in ten states, had become the administrative secretary of the Trotskyist SWP). The leaders of the Minneapolis teamsters' union and of the SWP were tried and jailed.

As Hoffa goes to jail on the big screen, I could not help remembering pictures I have seen of the 18 Trotskyists and union militants marching off to jail. These were the alternative to both Tobin and Hoffa. They relied on workers' defence squads to fight the company goons, not on other goons.

The real Hoffa, a trade union bureaucrat to his shoe soles, backed Tobin in gangster and other tactics against the revolutionaries in the trade union.

The politics of the film - if translated from the mythic dimensions of the film to the real world are gamey here and there, too. Robert Kennedy was indeed a snotty-nosed rich kid on the make; but the liberal-democratic bourgeois state, with an approximation to the rule of law, was better than the gangster rule of the union with which the real Hoffa was associated.

Last year the rank and file Teamsters successfully used the bourgeois courts to defeat the incumbent gangsters, the heirs of Hoffa in the union.

"Hoffa" - as myth, not as history - has great power and force. A fine film.

Socialist Organiser 556, 25-3-93