Review

The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America, by James L. Lorence, University of New Mexico Press, 256 pp, $21.95

To many older progressives, activists, union organizers, socialists and communists, the story of how the movie Salt of the Earth came to be, its production and blacklisting, is a cherished something to be told and re-told.

But, to a later generation it is a story rarely heard. James J. Lorence’s The Suppression of Salt of the Earth is just that story.

Written in a clear concise way, Suppression details how the lives of rank and file Mexican-American mine workers, members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Local 890 (IUMMSW), intersected with blacklisted Hollywood directors, reactionary politicians, conservative union leaders and the business community, in what became the most recognized case of censorship in Cold War America.

The story of Salt of the Earth began in Bayard, New Mexico. In the early 1950s Local 890 went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company in protest of their “dual wage” policy of paying Mexican-American workers less than their white counterparts. Local 890 eventually won the strike and gained the attention of Howard Biberman, Paul Jarrico and Michael Wilson, all blacklisted Hollywood directors.

Biberman, Jarrico and Wilson came together to form the Independent Productions Company (IPC), in an attempt to challenge the mainstream movie industry’s fear of dealing with serious social and economic issues. Salt of the Earth was their first and only collaboration.

From the first days of production they were met with hardship and resistance. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) advised union film crews to not touch the film. Roy Brewer, IATSE representative in Los Angeles, said the “communists” only wanted to use “labor for their own ends,” and vowed that the film would “never be shown in the United States.”

Brewer’s opposition to the project presented a serious challenge to IPC. In addition to his IATSE post, Brewer also chaired the AFL Film Council, was active in the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and was a key figure in the Motion Picture Industry Council, which spoke for all Hollywood unions and major industry organizations.

On the political front things weren’t much better for the Salt crew. Rep. Donald Jackson promised to do “everything in [my] power to prevent the showing of this communist made film in the theaters of America.”

While many politicians made a career of anti-communism and while most of the anti-communist tirades were found to be little more than fabrications and lies, there is even less truth to the claims of Jackson and Brewer that Salt was a “commie” film.

Indeed, some members of IPC were or had been members of the Communist Party, and there were CP members within Local 890. But, this was not a CPUSA initiative. And as Lorence documents, “When IPC leaders approached the Communist Party to intervene with communists in the union [IATSE] party higher up’s refused to help. The CP … concluded that the IATSE ties superseded Salt in importance and therefore refused to assist IPC.”

And like the conservative union leaders and politicians, the business community was more than happy to challenge the production and distribution of Salt, claiming that any dialog with the Communist Party proved that Moscow was somehow involved.

Throughout the book Lorence uncovers and documents the complacency or hostility many unions, politicians and business interests showed concerning the plight of Mexican-American union members and cultural and intellectual progressives in their attempt to produce something never done before – and not seen since.

While Suppression documents Cold War censorship in all of its horrible detail, it also highlights the irrepressible courage, tenacity and perseverance of a small group of people, union members and cultural producers, coming together and doing what is right. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth is a wonderfully enlightening book.

– Tony Pecinovsky (tonypec@pww.org)

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