Directed by Herbert J. Biberman
The United States of America
By all accounts, the film Salt of the Earth should not exist. Rarely has a film encountered such massive resistance and opposition to its production and distribution. Based on the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico, Salt of the Earth depicts a long, torturous miners’ strike against a corrupt and greedy corporation. Made during the height of the Cold War and anti-Communist sentiment, the film was written, produced, and directed by members of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who were blacklisted from Hollywood after being cited for contempt of Congress for not giving testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The film was decried by the House of Representatives, investigated by the FBI, and became the first and only American film in history to be officially blacklisted.
Stories of the films difficult production are legendary. Before the first take was printed, the Hollywood Reporter announced that it was a “commie” film under “direct orders from the Kremlin.” It was nearly impossible to hire Hollywood union crews due to the blacklist. Of the few that they managed to get, some were FBI informants like the editor Barton Hayes. The production was run out of several towns, including one incident in Silver City, New Mexico where the filmmakers were warned to, “get out of town...or go out in black boxes.” Film-processing labs were forbidden from working on the film, so it had to be developed in secret at night. During the development of the film stock, it had to be delivered in unmarked canisters to prevent sabotage. During the editing process it had to be stored in an anonymous wooden shack in Los Angeles. Theater projectionists refused to show it, thereby preventing the film from being seen anywhere in the US. And the final blow against the production came in the deportation of Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played the lead role. It wasn’t until 1965, a full twelve years after its completion, that Salt of the Earth was shown in American theaters.
This monstrous opposition begs the question: what kind of film was this to deserve or inspire such resistance? The answer lies in its sympathetic portrayal of strikers fighting against a powerful corporation. The film opens with a now infamous voice-over:
“How shall I begin my story that has no beginning? My name is Esperanza, Esperanza Quintero. I am a miner's wife. This is our home. The house is not ours. But the flowers... the flowers are ours. This is my village. When I was a child, it was called San Marcos. The Anglos changed the name to Zinc Town. Zinc Town, New Mexico, U.S.A. Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft...”
Before the strike even begins, we are familiarized with the situation faced by the miners and their families: their town has been taken over by a powerful corporation that completely controls every aspect of their lives. But the narration also establishes a second vital point: the people are more powerful than the machine that employes them. Of course, they don’t realize this at first. At the beginning of the film, the men of Zinc Town, New Mexico all work in the local mine while their wives stay home and take care of their children. Esperanza is no different. She toils away at cleaning her home while her body toils away with a third child in her womb. And just like all of the other women in the town, she lives in constant fear of an industrial accident in the mine.
One day that accident happens, nearly killing one of the workers. The mine owner callously demands that despite the causality, the mine being damaged, and the mine’s structural integrity being called into question that they get back to work immediately. Without a word spoken amongst the crowd, they unanimously decide to strike. They begin a grueling strike that stretches over many months. The mine owners employ every dirty trick in the book to get them back to work: he hires scabs, policemen, and locals to intimidate and assault the strikers. Esperanza’s husband, Ramon, is thrown in jail for over a month just for spitting in the face of an assailant. And then, after months of striking and suffering, a federal law is passed that legally prohibits them from striking.
The men decide to call it quits. After all, what could they possibly do against the new law? The women respond that they have a solution. Due to a loophole in the law, while the men are prohibited from striking, the women are not. They volunteer to take their husband’s places in the picket lines. And now enters the second great dilemma of the film. The men are horrified at the idea of the women picketing for them. For the entirety of the strike the women have been treated like second class citizens. And now they demand to take their place doing a man’s job. Amazingly, the men vote not to let the women picket for them.
This begs the question of why the men would stop their wives from striking. From my own analysis, I doubt that it has much to do with idea of women’s rights or equality. Instead, I think that the men feel that their masculinity is threatened. Striking is a man’s job. How can they maintain any self-respect if women succeed where they fail? After all, their community has been divided along gender lines for generations. Women stay at home, men do the work. The idea of women striking challenges their preconceptions concerning workplace and home politics. What are they to do?
Of course they eventually relent and the women start picketing. But that isn’t the point of the film. It is the struggle, the fight, the battle for equal rights, both in the workplace and in the bedroom, that dominates this film. The fight feels uncomfortably real and dangerous. Perhaps this is due to the fact that only five professional actors were used. Taking a page from Italian Neo-Realism, the vast majority of the cast were locals from Grant County, New Mexico and members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890, the very people who participated in the strike that inspired the film.
The pain we see is real. The people are real. The film is real. Perhaps that is why it scared the government so much. Reality is a difficult thing to confront, particularly when you oppose the unwashed masses that you were sworn to protect in the first place. So in a way, Salt of the Earth is more than just a great film. It is something real, true, honest, and righteous.