Salt of the Earth continues to inspire

Originally released in 1953, Salt of the Earth, a movie about a New Mexico zinc miners strike, continues to inspire, educate and help build working-class solidarity today. While the influence of Salt of the Earth in labor and trade union circles is unquestioned, it has also brought together diverse sections of the cultural and artistic world as well.

At the height of the Cold War, when House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings were a daily occurrence, a group of blacklisted Hollywood directors came together to challenge the industry’s anti-communism. They formed the Independent Productions Corporation (IPC), with Salt of the Earth as their first film.

While Hollywood was purging itself of “Communists,” the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was also purging Communist- and left-led unions. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (MMSW) was one of the unions purged.

In 1950 MMSW Local 890 went on strike against the Empire Zinc Corporation, demanding higher wages. “We also wanted to break the method of control, the use of the local police to break strikes and enforce segregation,” said Lorenzo Torrez, one of the strikers.

Shortly after the strike had begun, an injunction prohibited men from walking the picket lines. Women soon replaced their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers – an action of major significance, especially since corporate America had little tolerance for people of color, especially women of color, standing up for their rights.

Anita Torrez, one of the women who held the picket line, said, that professional strikebreakers were hired to “create violence,” adding that the strikebreakers “carried guns, used tear gas and attacked strikers and their wives.”

The film, troubled from the start, ran into roadblock after roadblock. Rosaura Revueltas, the lead actress, was deported to Mexico during production. The film’s director, Herbert Biberman, spent six months in jail for refusing to testify before HUAC. Several key personnel on the film were found in contempt of Congress when they refused HUAC’s badgering as well. The film crew was barred from laboratories, sound studios, and other facilities normally used by filmmakers. No Hollywood labs would process the film and the projectionist’s union refused to show it.

While the film was shot on location, with a budget of $250,000, the Hollywood Reporter claimed that the “commie” film was being made under “direct orders from the Kremlin.” California Republican Congressman Donald Jackson promised from the floor of the House of Representatives that he would do everything in his power to “prevent the showing of this Communist-made film in the theaters of America.”

Even though every attempt was made to keep the movie from being viewed, it did find a receptive audience. It won the International Grand Prize from the Academie du Cinema de Paris in 1955. During the radical upsurge of the 60s and 70s the film found an audience among America’s New Left, at labor rallies, campus film clubs, and radical art galleries.

Fifty years later Salt of the Earth continues to inspire. A special edition DVD, Salt of the Earth and The Hollywood Ten, which includes interviews with some of the miners, footage of the HUAC hearings, and information about the blacklisting of the movie, has been issued.

A CD-ROM with the movie and extra footage won the 1995 EMMA award for best Media Transfer Interactive Movie. Salt of the Earth was also the basis for an opera, “Esperanza,” which premiered in Madison, Wis., in August 2000. And recently the college of Santa Fe hosted a national conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the production of the film, which it called “one of the most important and controversial films in American cinema history.”

According to Lorenzo Torrez, Salt of the Earth “challenged the control of the movie industry. And, unlike other movies, the heroes were the workers, focused and militant, building a strong union.”

Salt of the Earth is the story of ordinary people fighting for social and economic justice, and so much more. It is a story about racism, sexism, chauvinism, red-baiting, union busting, censorship and courage; the courage of ordinary people, workers and filmmakers, standing together in solidarity.

The author can be reached at tonypec@pww.org