March 23, 2013

Salt of the Earth: A Must See Film

By Peter Miller, reprinted from The Cannon with permission.

Michael Parenti, a marxist historian,  wrote a book called Make Believe Media that takes a critical view at the film and television industry in North America. Parenti argues that the film and television industry promotes the ideas of the political and economic forces that control them. These ideas are often anti-labour, militarist, as well as implicitly xenophobic, racist, and sexist. He advocates for viewers to watch the media with a critical eye. He also provides some alternative films, that take a progressive stance and have become popular despite the repression of these films by the mass media.

One of the films that Parenti recommends is Salt of the Earth. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954, opening in New York. Viewers enjoyed the film a great deal but the film played in only 12 theaters across the United States after it’s release.

The film is based on the 1951 miners strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico. This is a warning that the following three paragraphs give away some key aspects of the plot.

Mexican miners were forced to work alone, and in dangerous conditions at the mine. Despite having recently formed a union as a local of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the miners had not been able to win a wage increase, or safety regulations from the company. Mexican miners were forced to work in worse conditions than Anglo or white miners, that were not forced to work alone.

The film is inspiring in its message of solidarity. White miners and Latino miners came together to strike when a miner was hurt when working alone. Workers were conscious that mexican miners were paid less in order to bring down wages of all the miners. At one moment, there was discussion that it might not be wise to strike: the company wanted the workers to strike and be crushed. The workers realized that the company would do anything it could to not give concessions to the workers' demands. The company gave lower wages to Latino miners as a way to profit off the backs of a marginalized group and threaten white miners when they made demands that the company saw as too strong. Despite the realization that the strike would be long, the workers went on strike and demanded equality with anglo miners.

The movie is also inspiring in its feminist message. The families in the mining town did not own their homes. Their homes were on company property, and rented from the zinc company. The conditions at the homes were poor. There was no hot running water, and women demanded that the union include proper sanitation in their demands. The men did not take their demand seriously, but throughout the strike, women and men worked together. At one point, when there was an injunction that made it illegal for the miners to picket in front of their mine, the women took over picketing duties because they were not included in the court order.

While women were picketing, their male partners were stuck working in the home. They realized the importance of including sanitation in their demands, when they saw how hard it was to heat up water and maintain a fire.
The film is pro-labour and showcases a theme that is often left out of the film industry: class struggle. The community that fought for better working conditions and united in order to win engaged in struggle against their corporate bosses, like countless other workers that have won demands in the past.

The film was written by Michael Wilson, produced by Paul Jarrico, and directed by Herber J. Biberman. One of the main protagonists actors in the film was Rosara Revueltas. They were all blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment during McCarthyism for alleged involvement in Communist Politics. The film was also called subversive and blacklisted because it was produced by some blacklisted people in the industry and sponsored by a union that had alleged communists in its leadership.

Only 5 professional actors were used in the film. The rest of the actors came from the union local itself. The acting was exceptional and actual housewives and miners all showed amazing potential at acting. Juan Chacón, who in real life was the union local president, did an excellent job playing one of the main protagonists in the film.

The film was denounced for its communist sympathies by the United States House of Representatives. However, since 1954, and despite political repression, Salt of the Earth has been a popular film for anyone who wants to see a story about worker’s struggling for their rights. The film can be watched on Youtube:

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