Salt of the Earth, from 1954 and filmed during the height of McCarthyism, is one of the only films to be made by a largely blacklisted production crew. Four of its primary creators were blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Paul Jarrico and Herbert J. Biberman, to make the film, had to fund it with their own Independent Production Corporation, use non-IATSE union actors and technicians, and film outside of the traditional studios, filming January 1953, in Silver City, New Mexico. And it goes without saying that there were lots of difficulties that arose while filming, editing, and distributing it!
It’s necessary to highlight who these HUAC blacklisted individuals were. There is its producer, Paul Jarrico, who refused to testify after being given a subpoena, which led to his getting fired at RKO by Howard Hughes. The director, Herbert J. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten. Even though Andersen describes him as, he “might have passed as untalented in 1947,” Biberman still received a six months prison term, for the contempt of Congress, due to not naming any of the American Communist party members names. (Along with Salt of the Earth, he would direct Slaves (1969), which Andersen describes as, “the only intelligent Marxist film ever produced by a Hollywood studio.”) There’s Michael Wilson, who in 1952 received the Oscar for the screenplay for A Place in The Sun, who was also named an unfriendly witness. He wrote the screenplay of Salt of the Earth, and then got the actual Mexican-American miner community to go through it and make revisions. (There is the funny anecdote regarding the difficulty of the casting of the police and mine owners in the film: The characters were so despicable that none of the non-professional actors wanted to play them!) And then there’s Will Geer, who was blacklisted in the early 1950s for refusing to testify.
The plot of Salt of the Earth dramatizes a long and difficult workers strike that actually happened between 1951 and ‘52 at the Mine Mill and Smelter in Grant County (near Hanover), New Mexico against the Empire Zinc Company. (In the film, the company is identified as "Delaware Zinc," and the setting is "Zinctown, New Mexico.") The workers of Department 890, who were 97% Mexican, stopped working, for over a year. They were striking because of hazardous working conditions. The capitalist owners expected the miners to go into the zinc caves alone to light explosive sticks of dynamite, instead of in pairs, which would be the safer thing to do, as then there would be someone to look out for them. The workers were striking for three things: safe work conditions, proper hygiene for their domestic residences, and the abolishing of systematic discrimination so that they would get equal pay as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts from the other mines. The women in the community even picketed after the men left off, when the men eventually received a court order preventing them to picket. (It is also interesting to note, how the strikers march in a circle, which was done, due to how, in this period, the police could have arrested them if they were only standing.) In all of this the authorities held a neutral position, even in face of racist public reactions to the events, which at times, from what is described, recalls the violence of the earlier Soot Suit Riots (e.g. abductions, destruction of private and public property, attacks etc). The film, which was made with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, and whose president Juan Chacon even acts in the film, experienced similar prejudices while making and releasing the film. For example, the lead, and only professional, the Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, who plays Esperanza, would get arrested, sent back to Mexico and blacklisted right in the middle of the production.
Salt of the Earth generally follows the classic Hollywood narrative style, but how it’s different, is in its break in representational conventions of class (showing a strike from the worker’s perspective, as noble and successful), ethnicity (the Mexican workers), and gender (giving the women’s perspective equal weight). The film builds on several different filmmaking traditions. First off, there are the American militant films of the 30s, which Edgar Fary in Positif (N.11) has done a great job contextualizing it within. These films were made in a society, before the communist witch-hunts, where, between the Great Depression and WWII, under Roosevelt, films could still be socially critical. In particular the films around Frontier Films, where worked the social photographer Paul Strand and the documentarian Leo Hurwitz, and films like United Actions (’39), Native Land (’38), and Strange Victory (’48). More on this, James writes that Salt of the Earth, “combined the two models of 1930s radical cinema, the collaboration between manual and cultural workers begun in the WFPI newsreels and the Hollywood Popular Front’s vision of a popular progressive feature.” James writes that Salt of the Earth was “the first feature since the WIR’s Passaic Textile Strike that was, as its producers point out, “of labor, by labor, and for labor.”” Other example of influences and affinities include the Soviet Constructivism of Dovzhenko and Eisenstein (especially its emphasis on nature and land, communal protest, and its use of editing and close-ups), the location shooting of Italian Neo-realism, the spirit of popular Mexican cinema, and the New Deal social realism of films like King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934). As well, for its militant qualities, of conveying truth to power, and calling out for action, Salt of the Earth is similar to René Vautier’s anti-colonial film Afrique 50. And one can see the influence Salt of the Earth had an the radical independent American filmmaking tradition on directors as diverse as Robert Kramer, Charles Burnett, John Sayles, John Gianvito and Laura Poitras.
James in The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles focuses on Salt of the Earth in depth, through a formal and political reading of the film. James contextualizes Salt of the Earth within the avant-garde micro-cinemas of the greater Los Angeles area, which are themselves in opposition to the hegemony of Hollywood, through their emphasis on their unique geography and history. James argues, “Since Hollywood was the center of the medium that dominated global culture, cinemas located in Los Angeles counter to Hollywood were the most critical and the most fundamental of all forms of resistance to the cultures of capitalism.” Los Angeles is an anomaly, an agglomeration of separate communities, and these local spatialities, are linked to their own, and wider, cultural heritage. And, evidently, this division is based on income, class and ethnicity. One emphasis of The Most Typical Avant-Garde is how truly diverse the Los Angeles communities really are, and how their micro-cinemas, through the decades, reflect these disparate ethnicities, genders, and sexual politics.
James highlights the general positive reception of Salt of the Earth during its release with liberal newspapers and magazines, who generally agreed with its message of class, race, and gender equality. Though the film was still marginal since it only did get a very brief American release due to the black-listing of its creators. But the film did receive a good a reception at Cannes, where it played outside of competition, and then in Europe. The film would be rediscovered during the political turmoil of the Seventies, where, according to James, it would be rediscovered and, though its message of class would be overlooked, it was appreciated through the lens of race and gender. It would petty to accuse the film of just being blind communist propaganda, as a certain Pauline Kael would do, because it’s more complex and poetic than just that. Or complain that its good intentions reduce its efficiency, compared to the spectacle, drama and violence of other films that share its themes like Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier or Joseph Losey’s The Lawless, as per Louis Seguin. So to conclude what Salt of the Earth achieves is a fight for liberty and personal pride, and it inspires hope for the future. For example, just pay attention to its motif and use of children. As its last intertitle beautifully states: “The salt of the earth, will inherit it.”