Dir:- Herbert J. Biberman
Starr:- Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, Juan Chacón, Mervin Williams, Henrietta Williams
Salt of the Earth has a good claim to being one of the most controversial and notorious American movies of all time. Normally a film with such an infamous public reputation would be expected to have transgressed societal proprieties with regard to the use of sex and violence. However, that is not the case with this New Mexico set movie about a miners strike. Salt of the Earth was the film that suffered most at the hands of the McCarthyist witch hunts that were doing the rounds in early fifties America. Without wishing to condone the political attitudes of the time, it is to a degree understandable why this was the case as the film is one of the most impressive pieces of agit-prop drama imaginable.
The film was based on the real-life events surrounding the 1951 strike at the Empire Zinc Company mines in Grant County, New Mexico. A group of Mexican miners become fed up with the inequality of treatment that they receive from their employers at Delaware Zinc Inc. Ramon Quintero is one of the most prominent union agitators and he comes to the conclusion that a strike must be organised to force the company to take issues of safety, pay and living conditions seriously. Ramon’s wife Esperanza is the narrator of the movie and at the start she is locked into a domestic world of cleaning, cooking and looking after the children – with a third child on the way. Esperanza has literally no power within her home, or the wider community, so that the concerns she has for practical matters such as sanitation, hot water and small domestic comforts like the radio, are almost completely ignored by the activities of the male Union activists. Generally the women within the mining community are treated to the same condescending contempt that the ‘Anglo’ managers and foremen display toward the Mexican miners (the women’s husbands). This situation is gradually changed when the women within the community, lead by Teresa Vidal (a bullish Henrietta Williams) decide to replace their husband’s on the picket lines, thus circumventing the tyrannical Taft-Hartley laws. Now men like Ramon have to confront the difficulties of domestic life and the frustrating feelings of emasculation that come along with their women taking the lead in union matters.
What makes Salt of the Earth a fascinating and powerful leftist agit-prop work is this dual focus at the heart of the film. Not only is it running against the dominant American politics of the time, rife with suspicions of anything vaguely socialist, but it is also engaging with issues of women’s rights and female equality, that literally had not been documented in film before. The reshaping of the domestic sphere of the mining community, with its demonstration of discriminatory practices being confronted and overcome, acts as a microcosmic exposition of the larger political issues at stake within America, regarding workers’ rights and union organisation against corporate exploitation. This is a narrative trick that British filmmaker Ken Loach has utilised with varying degrees of success in films like Bread and Roses and My Name is Joe. Take the small-scale personal politics of a family or community and through closely examining the struggles to fend off oppression in these spheres, it allows the more abstract political concerns of larger movements to be felt and understood, without necessarily appearing forced or inauthentic.
The star of the film is the bewitching Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was one of only five professional actors featured. Aside from being the principal narrative voice of the film, Revueltas as Esperanza Quintero is also the human point of contact and empathy for the audience. Ultimately it is her strength of character and courage that brings the community together under a greater sense of social equality and solidarity. Whereas Ramon and the other men of the community allow themselves to be cowed by authority, becoming increasingly easy prey for the divisive tactics of management and strike-breakers, Esperanza and the other women of the community present a more compelling and stubbornly resistant organised front. In a particularly powerful sequence at the centre of the movie, Esperanza and some of the other ringleaders of the women’s picket are fingered by a ‘scab’. The police decide to arrest these women assuming that by doing this they will rob the protest of its organising force. But the women are better prepared than their husbands, brothers and fathers. The moment that the police round-up these ringleaders, more women appear in the picket line, who have been held back in reserve. Likewise, once placed in the jail cells, the women will not shut up making the men of the police department’s life hellish. Such well orchestrated protests are almost Gandhian in their simple effectiveness.
The Salt of the Earth has been a grievously mistreated film, aside from the difficulties that blacklisted filmmakers Biberman, Paul Jarrico (the producer) and Michael Wilson (the screenwriter) suffered getting the movie made, there was also the near blanket ban to contend with, which was applied to the movie across most American cinemas on its theatrical release. For the best part of a decade after its release it was banned from distribution in the States, which might explain part of the reason why the movie looks incredibly dated nowadays, considering how few prints must have been kept in circulation. Both Biberman and Jarrico barely worked in Hollywood again, whilst lead actress Revueltas was deported back to Mexico during the shooting of the film. Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Wilson was able to get work on movies such as The Bridge over the River Kwai (for which he won a second Oscar, assigned to him posthumously in 1978), Lawrence of Arabia and Planet of the Apes, but had to suffer the ignominy of having his name removed from these films for fear that it would sway industry insiders from promoting or voting for these movies. The politics of these times are quite rightly viewed as a particular low-point in the much-heralded democratic freedoms of the American way of life.
One of the key cinematic techniques that the film deploys to wonderfully expressive effect, is that of the montage. Seemingly directly inspired by cinematic luminaries such as Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein, Biberman meshes together various different elements of the daily routine of the mining community, that helps to meaningfully illustrate the hardships of a miner’s life, its impact on his family and the mechanisation of working conditions within the mines. There is a disturbing montage sequence that conflates Esperanza’s giving birth to her third child, with the beating that Ramon receives at the hands of the police officers. Within this powerful sequence we have the sufferings of men and women aligned, which also acts as the point at which Esperanza and Ramon begin to move toward each others separate spheres, with Esperanza entering into the politics of the picket and Ramon coming to terms with the labours of his wife’s domestic life. Biberman shows a particular preference for framing his actors in stylised close-ups, with the camera either tilted upward (in the first part of the film almost always when focusing on a male actor), or high-angled, looking down upon them (most frequently when the women are talking to men, or the Mexicans are talking to their Anglo bosses). The camera only enters into medium shots when there is a sense of parity amongst the people framed. Also the work which Esperanza, and later Ramon, engages in around the home, is frequently framed in the kind of extreme low-angled shot that Riefensthal utilised in her Nazi propaganda movies to emphasise the power and strength of Hitler and other members of the Nazi party. Such a shot seems to highlight visually what Esperanza says toward the end of the film, that through their work the people must feel they are moving up in the world. Thus Esperanza’s domestic chores are the foundation for the successful picket movement, as through work and labour these people find inner strength (something which Sol Kaplan’s gratingly overzealous score seems to likewise be reinforcing).
Perhaps the most significant achievement of this film is the way in which it manages to freight in to its dialogue so much of the language of the labour movement in the US (it was after all funded by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who were seen as a subversive Communist-led Union organisation) without diminishing the authenticity of the community it depicts. There is clearly some influence from the post-war Italian neorealism of De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini in the way in which Biberman manages to extract committed dramatic performances from a majority non-professional group of actors. Unlike other agit-prop films, particularly those of British filmmaker Peter Watkins, there is a neatly balanced line between the political message portrayed and the authentic humanity of the performers, that helps to make Salt of the Earth both a thought-provoking and visceral cinematic experience. Like all good films of this ilk it patiently demonstrates the injustices of its scenario, whilst carefully winning an audience over to its cause. In this way it makes perfect sense that an American political mainstream so palpably unwilling to engage with issues of corporate and industrial exploitation, particular at the height of a Cold War that allowed for so many awkward scapegoats to be manufactured, should do everything in its power to prevent this movie from being seen. Ironically in 1992 that most central of American cultural-political institutions, The Library of Congress, inducted the movie into the National Film Registry for the preservation of culturally significant works of American cinema, thus providing the blacklisted with the last laugh.