Salt of the Earth

I’ve always been a proponent of using movies to initiate dialogue in public forums and I’m lucky enough to live in a city that does this with some regularity. A couple of nights ago, I had the pleasure of attending a benefit screening and discussion of Salt of the Earth, a 1954 blacklisted film depicting a miner’s strike, and the proceeds went to two unions representing the 71,000 grocery workers currently on strike in Southern California.

For readers unfamiliar with current events in the Golden State, there is a significant crisis in the grocery industry that serves as a microcosm of larger economic woes in the US. Earlier last year, Wal-Mart announced it will build 40 grocery Supercenters in California over the next three to five years. Wal-Mart, of course, is the largest corporation on earth–its roughly $220 billion annual sales is equivalent to the gross national product of Sweden. Keys to its financial success have been its non-union, low-wage workforce and underselling its competitors by any means necessary, forcing not only its competitors but also its suppliers to cut costs–and jobs.

After Wal-Mart’s announcement, Vons, a major Southern California grocery chain and subsidiary of Safeway, announced it would slash its employee health care benefits by fifty percent, prompting a workers’ strike on October 11th, 2003. Immediately, two other major grocery retailers, Ralph’s (a subsidiary of Kroger) and Albertson’s, decided to lock-out their employees (and hire new ones) after agreeing with Von’s that “a strike against one company would be considered a strike against all three.”

Now in its fourth month, the strike shows no signs of being resolved, even as business for these companies has been severely hampered by community boycotts in support of the workers and their families. This rare Salt of the Earth screening was co-sponsored by a number of Green Party chapters and Laemmle Theatres.

A few months ago, I reviewed All Day Entertainment’s DVD release of Christ in Concrete (1949), a movie that was made in Britain by several Hollywood filmmakers who were blacklisted in the US that was effectively shelved for decades. In some ways, Salt of the Earth is a more dramatic example of blacklist filmmaking fought in the trenches of this country. As a movie the FBI and the Hollywood industry did everything they could to destroy, it also qualifies as one of the first bona fide independent American films.

Based on a true story about a 1950-’52 strike by zinc miners in Silver City, New Mexico, the film is a rousing depiction of a community of Mexican-American workers and their efforts to demand equal rights with other (white) miners. It was financed by Local 890, the union depicted in the story, and made by one of the “Hollywood Ten” filmmakers, director Herbert J. Biberman, as well as other blacklistees: producer Paul Jarrico, composer Sol Kaplan, and writer Michael Wilson (whose credits include A Place in the Sun, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Planet of the Apes).

Detailed in James J. Lorence’s 1999 book, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (as well as Biberman’s own published account), industry string-pullers such as Howard Hughes banned laboratories from processing any of Salt‘s footage or offering post-production services of any kind–initial editing was done secretly in a temporary setup in the bathroom of the still-extant Rialto Theatre in South Pasadena. (One of the several editors who abandoned the project was reportedly planted by the FBI.) The FBI also deported the film’s star, Rosaura Revueltas, midway through filming (insert footage was subsequently and illegally shot in Mexico, where political pressure succeeded in banning the film’s production there as well) and after the movie managed to be completed, the industry’s projectionists’ union refused to screen it. After a handful of theatrical engagements in New York (where it was critically well-received), the film was promptly shelved until its “rediscovery” many years later. But in a twist of history (or was it?), the Library of Congress’ Film Registry celebrated the movie forty years later through its 1992 inclusion with the most “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant [American] films.”

The filmmakers intended the movie for a mass audience, so it’s quite accessible filmmaking, wearing its emotions and values on its sleeve. In fact, seeing it today could easily provoke bewilderment from viewers familiar with the film’s tortured history: why on earth would such a seemingly straightforward and melodramatic picture be treated with such vehement opposition? Recognizing this disparity reveals the astonishing extent to which anti-communist hysteria prevailed at the time.

The movie focuses on Ramon (Juan Chacon, a real-life union leader) and Esperanza (Reveultas) Quintero, a young married couple who illustrate the human side of racial inequality as well as gender tensions. As the company and local police put the heat on the male strikers, their wives volunteer to march the picket line in their places, creating a reversal of traditional gender roles: the women stage the rallies and spend time in jail while the men stay at home, wash dishes, and take care of the children. In many ways, the film is a progressive statement for the ’50s as several of the men begin whining about their domestic chores. (The film’s distributor, Organa, offers this QuickTime scene, which illustrates the growing friction between the conservative Ramon and the progressive Esperanza.)

The film’s style is social realist, with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. The troublesome sheriff is played by blacklistee Will Greer, who many associate with his later portrayal of the grandpa in the television show, The Waltons. The underground nature of its production guarantees some rough technical edges (the sound suffers the most, with fluxuations in quality throughout) but also places it alongside the postwar masterpieces of Italian neorealism, even if Salt is more clearly rooted in Classical Hollywood style with its strong narrative, three-point lighting, and continuity editing. It’s not a film renowned for its aesthetics–adequately wrought though they are–but a movie valued for its political stance and historical significance. More than the typical Miramax/Tarantino extravaganzas, it’s films like this that establish the historical precedent and importance of truly independent American filmmaking.

Salt of the Earth is available on VHS and DVD. National Public Radio broadcasted this story about its contemporary relevance (beyond that for Southern California grocery workers) on the occasion of its screening at a recent conference at the College of Santa Fe.