SALT OF THE EARTH(director: Herbert Biberman; screenwriter: Michael Wilson; cinematographer: Stanley Meredith; editors: Joan Laird/Ed Speigel; music: Sol Kaplan; cast: Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero), Juan Chacón (Ramon Quintero), Will Geer (Sheriff), Mervin Williams (Hartwell), Clinton Jencks (Frank Barnes), Virginia Jencks (Ruth Barnes); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Jarrico; The Criterion Collection; 1954)
“Kudos are in order for this extraordinary film for all it has to say that rings true about workers’ rights, racism, and feminism.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This subversive communist independent feature was co-produced by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelt Workers (the same union depicted in the story) and made by blacklisted director Herbert Biberman, writer Michael Wilson, actor Will Geer, producer Paul Jarrico and composer Sol Kaplan. These filmmakers were vics of the HUAC who were spurred on by Commie witch hunter from the senate Joseph McCarthy. The melodrama is based on an actual strike from 1950 to 1952 by a largely constituted Mexico-American union against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico. Its relevancy today is as an historical document and a fine example of a search for truth statement about pressing social and economic issues of the time that no other filmmakers were doing. Even though it at times is didactic, the acting is wooden and Biberman is not a very imaginative director, it still has value not only as a message film but for its entertainment. But its real worth is for its sheer balls to challenge the usual way Hollywood films sugar-coated labor problems between the bosses and the workers and how necessarily daring it was for the filmmakers in raising questions about racism and feminism at a time when that wasn’t done. In my way of thinking this qualifies this well-crafted film, made with a mostly nonprofessional cast including its star Juan Chacón, as essential viewing for those who care about a film that was made despite tremendous pressures from the Hollywood industry, business interests, the FBI, big labor unions, politicians and the government that it shouldn’t be made. Its purpose as Jarrico said was to be conceived as a “crime to fit the punishment.” To know more about how difficult it was to make this picture you can read the 1999 book by James J. Lorence “The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America.” It’s also interesting to note that this was the only blacklisted film ever made, and in 1992 it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry and celebrated for being a significant American film.
The story centers on the plight of a hard-working thirtysomething Mexican-American couple, the miner Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón, a real-life union leader) and his pregnant wife Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas, professional actress, who was repatriated to Mexico as a result of being in the film). They have two kids and live in poverty in a rundown shack in a shanty town without proper sanitation. The miners after an avoidable accident to one of their fellow workers go on strike demanding better safety and working conditions and the same wages as Anglo workers in other mining facilities. Frank Barnes (Clinton Jencks, nonprofessional) is the Anglo union organizer who helps the men in their picket lines, to bargain with the bosses and to deal with their personal hardships caused by the strike. As the union must fight against a court injunction that prevents the miners from picketing on mining company property, the women step in and continue to picket legally since they are not miners.
Kudos are in order for this extraordinary film for all it has to say that rings true about workers’ rights, racism, and feminism in the socially backward year of 1954 and the filmmaker’s unflappable conviction to tell it like it is despite being harassed to stop him from freely expressing himself. Biberman’s film does a nice job focusing on the economic trap their decent Mexican-American mining family endures and puts a human face on their plight, making them a symbol for all those others suffering in the same way. Salt of the Earth feels somewhat more like a humanistic Frank Capra film than a Commie tract, as its leftist leanings are presented without an overload of dogma.
REVIEWED ON 7/26/2005 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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