film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Salt Of The Earth (1954)

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I actually think I’d get a kick out of a movie about this movie.  It’s a dramatization of a real labor union strike in New Mexico, made by a handful of blacklisted actors and filmmakers with the cast round out by actual miners (including one of the two leads).  Along the way, the filmmakers had to contend with the locals sabotaging their shoots, labs refusing to process their film, pushback from the cast about the script, and the lead actress getting deported.  It wasn’t screened anywhere in the US upon its release since the projectionists’ union refused to run it.  (On the other hand, it is the only American film to be screened in China during Mao Tse-Tung’s time in office.)  This is a film that really,  really wanted to get made.

The film was inspired by an actual strike that took place in a mine in New Mexico where Latinx miners were being treated quite differently from the Anglo ones.  Their pay was lower, they had separate locker rooms and canteens, their facilities were sub-standard.  Their wives were also complaining that the company housing provided to the Latinx workers had no indoor plumbing.  In the film, much of this is dramatized through its impact on one family – Ramon (Juan Chacón) and Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltes) Quintero, and their three kids. Ramon is one of the better miners at “Delaware Zinc”, but the ill treatment gets to him and he regularly takes his frustration out on Esperanza; not with violence, fortunately, but with a perpetual bad mood. He regularly attends meetings of their union and joins in with the negotiations for better conditions, but ignores Esperanza and the other women when they press the union to lobby for better housing on their behalf.

Ramon doesn’t even want Esperanza to show up by the picket line with the other women when the men go on strike; he only relents when he learns that none of the other women make coffee as well as she can.  Esperanza comes to relish being part of the movement – so much so that when the factory files an injunction ordering that any striking miners would be arrest immediately, she’s one of a small group of women pointing out that the injunction says nothing about arresting miners’ wives if they start a picket line.  Which they’d be happy to do.  …But let’s also add indoor plumbing for the housing to our list of demands, eh boys?

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There are times when the storytelling gets somewhat clunky.  We are effectively looking at a bit of propaganda, which isn’t always known for nuance in its characters or in its plot points. An early “things suck for us” spat between Esperanza and Ramon is a little didactic, as are some of the union meetings, and we first meet Esperanza as she is melodramatically begging forgiveness of the Virgin Mary for momentarily wishing that her unborn child would be stillborn so it doesn’t suffer with the rest of them.  I admit that I cringed a bit when I saw that “The International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers” sponsored its production, as I was expecting precisely this kind of propaganda.

But there are also moments where we get to see the more human moments of community the miners share.  For all his crabbing, Ramon does rally the town to all come celebrate Esperanza’s birthday in the film (even if their son has to pull him out of a union meeting and remind him to do it), and the women have a fun sense of camaraderie both on the picket line and off.  (One thing that made me chuckle – at one point, one of the women is joking with the others about the way her husband wags his butt when he dances, and then several minutes later, when her husband brings her out on a dance floor, she looks at the other women and points significantly to his butt as they dance just to make them laugh.)

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Even more significantly, the film addresses the strength of the women’s support, and the problems some of the men have with accepting that support.  A late scene sees Ramon at the local bar in a sulk because Esperanza is at the picket line, leaving him to take care of the kids, but when he gets home Esperanza calls him on his nonsense and demands equality in their marriage, just like the strikers are hoping for equality at the mill.  It was a surprising nuance I wasn’t expecting to see addressed.

It’s possible that the film has such realism because the filmmakers were working with real miners. Screenwriter Paul Jarrico and director Herbert Biberman were flying by the seat of their pants with this production – Jarrico was blacklisted by Hollywood, and Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten, and had just gotten out of jail after serving his sentence for contempt of Congress. So they didn’t have access to the kind of production staff or actors Hollywood films did.  No matter – they took a page from the Italian neo-realists and cast most of the film with actual miners, many of whom had taken part in the strike that inspired the film itself. Juan Chacón was union president at his mine, in fact. The miners’ participation ended up influencing the script in ways both large and small – the original draft had scenes in which Ramon has an affair, or blows his last company paycheck before the strike on a crapload of whiskey.  The miners objected strongly to these plot points, and they were cut.

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As for the professional actors – there were only five; four blacklisted actors took smaller roles as the local sheriff or mine overseer.  Initially, a fifth blacklisted actress was due to play Esperanza – but she was Caucasian, and the company realized that having an Anglo lady play a Latina were kind of icky.  So instead they recruited Rosaura Revueltes, an up-and-coming actress in the Mexican film scene, to star as Esperanza.  Unfortunately Revueltes became a bit of a target during filming; Biberman and Jarrito’s reputation, along with the subject matter, earned the production several powerful enemies willing to exploit political connections.  One of those connections was with U.S. Immigration – who turned up on set one day saying that Revueltes had passport problems, and deported her back to Mexico midway through filming.  Undeterred, Biberman used a stand-in for several scenes and added some narration from Esperanza, which Revueltes recorded in a soundstage in Mexico and smuggled over the border to Biberman.

Sadly, the film itself got blacklisted upon its completion, and anyone who hadn’t been blacklisted already became thus.  However, it enjoyed an “underground” distribution amongst unions and leftist and progressive groups, with film historians, Mexican-Americans, and feminists soon joining the word-of-mouth throughout the 1960s.  Finally, 50 years after the film’s creation, it was granted a nationwide distribution at several film conferences by way of apology.

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