#410) Salt of the Earth (1954)
OR “Black & White and Red All Over”
Directed by Herbert J. Biberman
Written by Michael Wilson
Class of 1992
The Plot: Based on a true story, “Salt of the Earth” is a fictional retelling of the zinc miner’s strike of New Mexico in the early ‘50s. Fed up with their unsafe working conditions and prejudiced treatment by their white or “Anglo” counterparts, the Mexican-American members of the miners union go on strike. The union leader Ramon (Juan Chacón) is met with hostility from his management as well as city officials, and an impasse is reached. As the months drag on Ramon’s wife Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) starts to take more of a leadership position, and joins her fellow housewives at the picket line. It’s a progressive tale of the struggles of women, minorities, and blue-collar workers in America, but unfortunately this is the height of the Red Scare, and this movie smells like a big Commie rat.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film’s troubled history, and mentions “its influence on independent filmmakers”.
But Does It Really?: I knew nothing about “Salt of the Earth” before this viewing, so imagine my surprise when I learned that I was watching the only blacklisted movie in film history. As a historical document, “Salt of the Earth” is not to be ignored. As a film, it’s alright. Yes, its pro-union message can be quite preachy at times, but the earnest performances by the film’s non-actors help make it much more palatable. “Salt of the Earth” is a representation of the times and circumstances that forged this movie into being, with a message that still rings true almost 70 years later. No argument here for “Salt of the Earth” joining the NFR.
Every Independent Film Company Gets One: The Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s is far too grand a topic to cover here, but suffice to say that a lot of very talented individuals in the entertainment industry were denied work because they may or not have been involved with America’s Communist Party two decades earlier. Independent Productions Corporation was founded by Herbert J. Biberman (one of the Hollywood Ten) and Paul Jarrico to create job opportunities for blacklisted filmmakers. “Salt of the Earth” was the only film produced by the company amidst a lot of backlash. The House Un-American Activities Committee deemed the film “a new weapon for Russia”, New Mexican citizens protested by setting local union halls on fire, and lead actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported back to Mexico during production. An anti-trust suit against various company’s “illegal conspiracy” against the film dragged out for a decade, and IPC folded shortly thereafter.
Wow, That’s Dated: Why everything, obviously. There’s nothing timeless at all about the systemic oppression of women and minorities, or the threats that workers face from management while unionizing. Nope, all relics of the past. [Nervous laughter]
Title Track: Esperanza says the title once at the end of the film. Turns out the “salt of the earth” are the children who will one day inherit the world their parents have made for them. At long last, someone is thinking of the children.
Seriously, Oscars?: Surprise, surprise, a pro-union movie released at the height of McCarthyism and ignored by Hollywood was completely shut-out of the Oscars. The 1954 Best Picture winner was “On the Waterfront”, a movie in which the union is the corrupt force and the man who testifies against them is the hero. Nice try, Kazan.
- The real life Empire Zinc strike of 1951 served as this film’s inspiration. Many of the details are the same, but the film is still a fictionalized account of the strike. “Salt of the Earth” was filmed on location in Grant County, New Mexico (site of the actual strike), and the film’s cast is made up mostly of local, non-professional actors.
- Not only were many of the creatives involved in production victims of the blacklist, but so was the film’s sponsor. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers had ties to the Communist party that it refused to denounce, causing the union to be expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1950. The IUMMSW’s involvement was more fuel for the fire of those in Washington and Hollywood trying to prevent “Salt of the Earth” from being made.
- Herbert Biberman originally planned on casting his wife, the definitely-not-Mexican Gale Sondergaard, as Esperanza, as well as a white actor as Ramon. Once he realized his own subconscious prejudice against Mexican actors in leading roles, Biberman cast Rosaura Revueltas and Juan Chacón. Revueltas was an up-and-coming star in Mexican cinema, while Chacón was a union local president involved with the real strike.
- If the town’s sheriff looks familiar, that’s Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton. Like his fellow cast and crew, Geer was deemed a “hostile witness” by HUAC and blacklisted from Hollywood for a time.
- As previously mentioned, Rosaura Revueltas was deported during production, allegedly because her passport had not been stamped properly upon arrival. The remainder of her close-ups (as well as her narration) were recorded separately in Mexico City.
- I don’t have much to say about the film itself; the behind-the-scenes story is infinitely more fascinating than the on-screen one. That being said, Rosaura Revueltas is your MVP, giving Esperanza a very powerful character arc. Her non-professional co-stars more than hold their own, though it helps that they are telling their own story.
- “Salt of the Earth” was purposefully ignored upon its initial US release (some projectionists flat-out refused to even screen it), and received one screening in New York. The film did, however, have a successful European release, winning the grand prize at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
- “Salt” eventually made it back to the states in the mid-60s, playing in union halls and film schools across the country. The film’s reappraisal from Americans was greatly helped in 1982 when the film lapsed into public domain.
- As expected, few of the film’s blacklisted creatives found work in Hollywood after “Salt of the Earth”. Producer Paul Jarrico and Screenwriter Michael Wilson both moved to Europe and continued their film careers there, while Herbert Biberman didn’t work again until 1969’s “Slaves”, shortly before his death.
- The making of “Salt of the Earth” was made into a documentary with 1984’s “A Crime to Fit the Punishment”. Online clips are hard to come by, but you can find it on archive.org! Thanks internet nerds!
- The film’s production is also a major plotline in the 2000 movie “One of the Hollywood Ten”, starring Jeff Goldblum as Herbert Biberman.