Monday, September 7, 2009

labor day movie rec : salt of the earth

FlintPublic, who posted the 1954 film Salt of the Earth in sections on YouTube, writes that its dramatization of an actual labor strike during the 1950s was

produced, written and directed by victims of the Hollywood blacklist. Unable to make films in Hollywood, they looked for worthy social issues to put on screen independently. This film never would have been made in Hollywood at the time, so it is ironic that it was the anti-communist backlash that brought about the conditions for it to be made. In many ways it was a film ahead of its time. Mainstream culture did not pick up on its civil rights and feminist themes for at least a decade.

You can watch and/or legally download the entire film for free at the Internet Archive.

At, Doug Cummings calls Salt of the Earth "a movie the FBI and the Hollywood industry did everything they could to destroy."

Cummings also writes,

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 . . .

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.

[Read the rest of Cummings' review here]


  1. Thanks for this post, Macon. It's a truly important and genuine film. And SO much more radical than just about anything since. Absolutely inspiring.

  2. Always great to share this film and others like it with new audiences. I've long believed that one of the most important missions of a free internet should be to give voice to those who were silenced in the past. Maybe if their perspectives were given fair consideration things wouldn't be so stilted and unfair today. Thanks again & Solidarity!


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