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From the Food Network, we know the pleasure of a tomato in close-up, the way shredded lettuce falls and bounces against the cutting board, the dim glint of steel knives on steel countertops. What we don’t know is who, when there’s no cameras, holds the knife.
Documentary The Hand That Feeds widens the frame from the food we eat to the people who prepare it. In Manhattan, where kitchens are tiny and time is scarce, cheap, local chain restaurants like the unfortunately named Hot & Crusty occupy a vital, fluorescent place in New Yorkers’ hearts.
Unfortunately, the 24-hour bakery and café feeds Manhattan at the expense of its employees, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador, and elsewhere — often undocumented — who work long hours with no breaks and are paid below the minimum wage. These complaints are common because the unethical treatment of service workers is pervasive.
Over the course of the film — long for a documentary, though it doesn’t feel that way — Mahoma López organizes with fellow restaurant workers, activists, and lawyers. López is a singularly tender, compelling, and articulate campaigner in this high-stakes struggle for justice, filmed with the urgency and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller.
The way the different groups and demographics intersect, or remain ignorant of one another, is fascinating. Why didn’t López and his co-workers know about the Occupy movement? How can we learn to move across power structures to support one another in the fight for fairness? That’s why communal, affordable meeting places like Hot & Crusty are so important. By examining huge protests at a neighborhood institution, the film suggests eating a meal together is as powerful as a walkout.