Do you still think you can have dignity only if I have none?
-Esperanza to her husband, on women's right to political expression
Salt of the Earth (1954)
I have discovered a rather large soft spot in my heart for (of all things) union and labor dispute movies. OK, so these films are sometimes quasi-propagandistic (or openly, proudly so), and don't always yield the subtlest of arguments, plots or characterizations, and there is also this to be said - I have seen only the very best of the genre so far. My favorite of the early Soviet movies I watched through my "1001 films you must see before you die" project was certainly Eisenstein's Stachka (Strike, 1924) with its delightfully odd evocation of Ben Jonson's style of typed characterization. My favorite of the documentaries I watched while following along with Filmspotting's recent Documentary Marathon was Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple monumental 1976 documentary about a coal miners' strike against Duke Power in Kentucky. This last is a must-see movie, for the triumph of labor efforts by wives and sisters where the men were hemmed in by the law, for the extraordinary central character Lois Scott pulling a gun from her bra, for the marvelous scene in which a dispute breaks out between the women over a husband who may have strayed and another women chimes in - I'm paraphrasing here, since it has been a few months - "You can take my husband. I'm not here for a husband - I'm here for a CONTRACT."
Maybe it is the feminist element in many of these movies (on top of the other progressive social arguments) that keeps drawing me in. The most recent of the strike movies I have watched, Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954), rehearses the facts of Harlan County, U.S.A. in fictional form some twenty years before they occurred. Biberman's film was itself based on a real strike by zinc miners, and its cast is largely made up of union members who had participated in the strike. Ramon and Esperanza Quintero (played by union president Juan Chacon and the stunning Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas) become leaders of the miners and the women's auxiliary group, despite Ramon's persistent belief that it is below a woman's dignity (and in fact an abandonment of her children) to join a picket line or speak in union meetings.
Their demands: equal safety standards for Mexican and Anglo-American miners, pay equity, and (the women's demand) better sanitation standards in the company-owned housing. It is not until the women go on strike and the men see how much work goes into caring for the children, washing clothes, preparing food, and above all chopping wood for hours and hours every day because there is no plumbing in the company housing that they appreciate the seriousness of their wives' demands and the terrible threat poor sanitation poses to their families' health.
This film, which faced serious threats during production (shots were fired at the set during shooting, Revueltas was deported on a questionable passport violation midway through the filming and had to be replaced by a body double, the film had to be hidden to protect it during editing in Los Angeles), draws heavily on the influence of both Eisensteinian propaganda films (the close-ups of women are particularly reminiscent of Battleship Potemkin and Stachka) and the Italian neorealists. From the latter influence, Salt of the Earth draws a largely non-professional cast (significantly less grating though no less photogenic than the populations of similar experiments I have seen) and a certain amount of reliance on children to evoke maximum pathos. This film did not reach the soaring (and sometimes unnerving) beauty of these progenitors, but neither did it inspire the sinking boredom I sometimes felt in (great! I know! They're great!) films like Potemkin and La Terra Trema. It is surprising gripping, and surprisingly modern in its sexual politics.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the way the intimate details of Ramon and Esperanza's marriage are so seamlessly echoed by the larger political events of the strike. This is not a subtle comparison (the oppression of women in the home = the oppression of the working classes in industry), but it is a well crafted one, and this is largely a result of the ambivalent and nuanced manner in which the marriage is drawn. This is no allegory: it is a portrait of how you can love someone without respecting them, and oppress them while believing that you are protecting them. The moment in which Esperanza finally declares her independence is, to say the least, rousing, and it is no coincidence (SPOILER AHOY!) that the film ends with the company thugs evicting the family and gutting their house of its accustomed belongings, only to have the striking men and women forcibly replace the furniture, but with a difference. The idea of the home must be renewed and regenerated, if it is going to work at all.
Salt of the Earth (U.S.A. 1954)
dir. Herbert J. Biberman
Other grains of salt:
- Wikipedia has a VERY interesting, tidbit-filled article on Salt of the Earth, as well as one on Rosaura Revueltas.
- Michael Selig writes an informative article about the pressures brought to bear on the film during shooting, editing, and distribution because of its political content. Both this article and the Ceplair article below contain images from the film - worth looking at!
- This 2004 article by Larry Ceplair for Cineaste covers a number of releases (books and DVDs) that marked the film's 50th anniversary. I admit to a strange eagerness to read more about this film. Perhaps I should start with a broader topic - does anyone know what the best book about the Hollywood 10 would be?
- Catherine Lavender at CUNY has put together a basic study guide for the film, including historical context and questions to ponder.
- The Salt of the Earth: The Only Blacklisted American Film website contains a bevy of excerpts and links.
- The College of Santa Fe held a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film's production. The website for this conference (which included Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn on its advisory board) contains information about the filmmakers and gives you an idea about academic responses to the film.
- For more information on the DVD, or to buy it, go to Amazon: Salt of the Earth (this version is packed with extras) or (the VERY affordable, but no-frills version I watched) Salt of the Earth.