Home Video Hovel: Salt of the Earth, by David Bax
Herbert J. Biberman’s stunning and vital Salt of the Earth opens with shots of women at work. They’re not in factories or mines, like their husbands, fathers and brothers that we will soon meet. But their tasks are strenuous nonetheless, from churning out food over a hot stove to hunching over a wash basin to clean clothes. This early American independent film, overtly and passionately political, may be the story of Mexican-American miners who go on strike but it’s not so narrow as that description. Really, it’s about being recognized and treated fairly in return for the hard work you do to contribute to your family, your community and society. And that’s true whether you are white or brown, man or woman.
Funded in part by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (which did it no favors in the years of the Hollywood Blacklist, when HUAC was still at full strength), Salt of the Earth is directly based on the 1951 Grant County, New Mexico strike against the Empire Zinc Company. Though the company and town are fictionalized here, the film is otherwise a levelheaded and realistic procedural detailing how a strike is decided upon by workers, reacted to by the company and local authorities and, finally, how the day to day logistics are carried out by a group of people who are willing to risk their livelihoods for the cause of fair treatment.
Taking his cues from the then-thriving Italian neorealist movement, Biberman cast both professional and nonprofessional actors. While it’s pretty easy for even an uninformed viewer to tell which performers belong to which camp, the authenticity lent by the amateurs and the character in their faces, many of which are carved and eroded by actual mining work, is an essential ingredient. And, it is worth mentioning, it made it easy for Biberman to avoid “white-washing.” The only Caucasian faces in the movie are on Caucasian characters, both good and bad.
Some of those white characters are fellow miners, some of whom strike in solidarity and some of whom don’t care how much they make as long as they make more than the Mexicans. This intra-unit turmoil is part of Salt of the Earth’s expansive thematic scope. Equality faces enemies from many directions and with many different motivations. We’ve hardly had time to register dismay with the less sympathetic whites, in fact, when we see that the Mexican men often treat their own wives as second class citizens. But, when the males are forced by injunction to stay off the picket line, the women take up the cause for them. The most effective scenes detail the women and their commitment paralleled by the men at home discovering that domestic work is far more difficult than they ever imagined. Salt of the Earth is as much a feminist film as a socialist one.
Though there is likely not much that could have been done about it, it’s worth pointing out that the sound quality is rough. The picture is soft but passable. All of it is about the best that can be hoped for from a blacklisted indie more than sixty years old.
There are no special features.