SALT OF THE EARTH
Director: Herbert Biberman
Production Co.: Independent Production Corporation / International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers
Producer: Paul Jarrico
Screenplay: Michael Wilson
Music: Sol Kaplan
Assistant directors: Jules Scherwin & David Wolfe
Cinematography: Leonard Stark & Stanley Meredith
Editors: Ed Spiegel & Joan Laird
Sound: Dick Stanton & Harry Smith
Esperanza Quintero: Rosaura Revueltas
Sheriff: Will Geer
Barton: David Wolfe
Hartwell: Mervin Williams
Alexander: David Sarvis
Ramon Quintero: Juan Chacon
Teresa Vidal: Henrietta Williams
Charley Vidal: Ernest Velasquez
Consuela Ruiz: Angela Sanchez
Sal Ruiz: Joe T. Morales
Luz Morales: Clorinda Alderette
Antonio Morales: Charles Coleman
Ruth Barnes: Virginia Jencks
Frank Barnes: Clinton Jencks
and members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890, Bayard, New Mexico
Black & White
A revolutionary film that remains unique in American cinema for both the circumstances of its production and its extraordinary forward-looking content. Salt of the Earth was made independently by several victims of the Hollywood blacklist that resulted from the notorious hearings of the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Commission in the late forties. A particularly venal episode in the ignoble social history of Hollywood, the HUAC offered the world the spectacle of leading figures of the film world throwing their colleagues to the lions of fanatical cold-war paranoia. Ten of their number were convicted of contempt of Congress for attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights and were blacklisted with unseemly alacrity by the studios. The director, writer and producer of Salt of the Earth were erstwhile members of the Hollywood Ten, forced to set up their own independent company in order to continue making films under their own name. The subject of their film was defiantly anti-establishment: a restaging of the events surrounding a particularly vicious miner's strike in New Mexico. The critical reaction at home was predictably hysterical. More rational audiences and critics in Europe saw the movie's significance immediately. In filming such a subject on its actual location with participants in the original events filling out a largely non-professional cast, Biberman and his crew had made a film firmly in the neo-realist tradition, a film of conscience teeming with those very virtues rarest in classic Hollywood cinema: natural performances, thematic ambiguity, social commitment and - most unusually - strong, believable leading roles for women. Although vilified in the U.S., the film went on to enjoy extensive exposure behind the Iron Curtain (where it was, ironically, equally misrepresented). In the early seventies history finally caught up with this remarkable film when Rosaura Revueltas' superb performance as Esperanza was endorsed by the burgeoning women's movement. In the following quarter of a century this unapologetically socialist, pro-union film has been more often cited for its pioneering feminism. And for a film conceived by three men in the nineteen-fifties, its achievements in this area are rather unexpected. In the film, Esperanza and her sisters not only take up the cause of their husbands when the menfolk are legally disempowered, but significantly twist the focus of the dispute to incorporate their own particular grievances. The women's bid for sexual equality is so fundamental to the story that even the notional 'heroes' of the film - the miners and their union - are sidelined for their opposition and misunderstanding of it.
Salt of the Earth, based on a 1951 zinc miner's strike that took place in Silver City, N.M., was made in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era. The film was denounced as subversive and subsequently blacklisted because it was sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which had been expelled from the CIO in 1950 for alleged Communist-dominated leadership) and was made by film-makers who figured as 'unfriendly' witnesses before the House Un-American Activities Commission. Ironically, because it also deals with the struggle of women, specifically the miners' wives, for recognition, dignity and equality, the film is a focus of renewed interest 22 years later. Salt of the Earth impressively counterpoints the strike itself and the relationship between a striking Mexican-American miner and his wife.
[Juan] Chacon helps organise the strike which demands that Mexican-Americans be given the same safety standards that the mining company provides for Anglo workers, but at home he refuses to end discrimination and change the status quo. Miss [Rosaura] Revueltas, pregnant with her third child, is traditionally passive and at first reluctant either to take part in the strike or to assert her rights for equality at home. But she changes and when the men are forced to end their picketing by a Taft-Hartley Act injunction the women take their place in the picket line and she joins them. The women, indeed, come out looking stronger than the men, some marching with babes in their arms, resisting tear gas and making jail so unendurable for the sheriff (deliciously played by Will Geer) that they are released.
Salt of the Earth is also a love story about the young couple divided by conflicting attitudes, traditions and roles, but under crisis finding the common cause. It is the wife who speaks for survival. "You want to go down fighting," she tells her husband. "I don't want to go down fighting. I want to win." Michael Wilson's script is a masterful blend of passion, poignancy and restraint. The cast is comprised of five professional actors; the rest are the actual miners and their wives. All perform exceedingly well. Miss Revueltas is stunning. Her portrayal is unforgettable. The late Herbert J. Biberman directed with conviction and excellence. Salt of the Earth, 25 years after the ugly controversies of its birth, remains a taut and moving achievement and a milestone of American political expression.
- Linda Gross, Los Angeles Times, 7/2/76
I first saw Salt of the Earth in 1972 at a benefit for a new women's centre on the west side of Los Angeles. Like others in the audience, I was deeply moved. Salt of the Earth seemed to articulate the aspirations of women of my generation. "I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go." Here was a film that presented housework, child care, sanitation as important political issues; that used humour to deflate macho attitudes; that recognised the necessity of rejecting the "old way" but acknowledged the difficulty of creating something new; that had chosen a woman as protagonist and entrusted to her the role of narrator. Here was that rarity, a female hero who not only struggles and suffers but grows and wins. And she gains not simply in self-knowledge, not simply through wresting a piece of hard-won turf from an unchanged society; rather, her victory represents the shared triumph of the community - the specific victory of a successful strike, the less tangible victory of greater equality between Anglos and Mexican-Americans, women and men...
The outspoken feminism of Salt of the Earth is rare in films of any era, particularly rare in the fifties when the feminine mystique exerted so powerful a hold. Its portrayal of women's daily lives and its vision of growing power through growing sisterhood have made the film deeply welcome in the culture of the contemporary women's movement. Its story though, must be one of struggle on many fronts... The struggle of workers, of Mexican-Americans, of women for dignity and equality are the substance of Salt of the Earth. The film's significance today is its insistence on their relatedness, its vision of what director Herbert Biberman called "the indivisibility of equality" - and its acknowledgement of how hard it is to make that vision work...
Young audiences today, seeing Salt of the Earth for the first time, often express surprise that so "old" a film should portray with such passionate comprehension the sometimes conflicting claims of feminist, ethnic and class consciousness - issues still very much with us, conflicting claims still unresolved. That surprise underlines the real damage of the repressive eras of our history. For the story of Salt of the Earth - the strike, the film, the people - is an integral part of progressive belief and action in our politics and in our culture, a heritage that did not completely disappear in the "haunted decade" of the fifties but went, often unwillingly, underground.
- Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, from the published screenplay of Salt of the Earth, New York, 1978
The film is unusual in that those who made it, unbeholden to any studio producers, shared a particular ideological view and were able to reflect this in the script. Writer and director saw the strike, which was real enough, from a perspective that emphasised the broad categories of Communist Party social analysis...
The emphasis in official party thinking after the war was on class and the ills of capitalism, and wartime feminist perspectives on the 'Woman Question' represented a minority view. But whatever Wilson's thoughts, he was faced, on arriving in Hanover, New Mexico in October 1951, with a strike in which women had played a significant role. It was Wilson who set the central structure of Salt of the Earth, and the pre-eminence of the character of Esperanza. There was widespread consultation with local miners and their families and this led to changes that included a 'cleaning up' of several unfavourable aspects of Ramon's character in the film. The end result was influenced by the technical constraints, the effect of the militant consciousness generated during the dispute, and the ideological and aesthetic assumptions of producer, director and writer. The film was certainly unique at the time in its view of class, ethnic and feminist issues, and it has become revered as an icon of the blacklist period.
- Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition, London, 1992