Salt of the Earth (1954)

Director:  Herbert J. Biberman

Salt of the Earth (1954) is somewhat of a rarity in American cinema.  It is often described as the “only film banned/blacklisted” in the United States.  (This of course doesn’t take into account certain foreign films like Battleship Potemkin, that also were essentially blacklisted in the same way).  The history of the film itself is unique as it was made by one of the “Hollywood Ten” blacklisted directors and contains strong pro-Socialist, pro-Feminist, and anti-racist themes.

The film itself revolves around the struggles of Mexican and Anglo miners who decide to go on strike and how that strike is dealt with by the state and the company they work for.  The union votes to strike through a thoroughly democratic process.  The problems of leading up to the strike include the same problems like the film Matewan had: racism and division (I would even imagine that Matewan drew much inspiration from the themes dealt with in Salt of the Earth).

The miners confront the bosses

The miners confront the bosses

Once the workers are actually on strike and have established that they need to stay united, the striking miners’ wives and significant others call to their attention the way in which the miners have been sexists to them and demand to be treated as equals.  There is even a meeting where some of the union workers attempt to block the women from participating in decision making when the women decide that they want to help on the picket line.  The men are called out for being “overly protective” and sexist in their position that the line is “no place for women” and eventually the men concede and the women are allowed to participate.

This unity that is ultimately established in the film was key for the success of the strike, as the powers that were attempted to prevent the strike from continuing, they could not face a united working class of the film: and that is the overall message of the film.  The brilliant thing about the film is that the divisions in the working class were not presented as this “top down” trickery by the ruling class to divide the working class where the workers are portayed as drones easily duped by capital, but instead that the workers approached the situation with their own flaws and that

only they could get over them.  The divisions were certainly shown to be an advantage for the bosses, and one can of course trace those ideas and ideology to the ruling elite, but that blame can only go so far and this film does a good job at painting a more realistic picture.

As a matter of fact, most of the actors of the film aren’t actors at all, as the film uses neo-realism as a technique to deliver what the filmmakers saw as the most realistic portrayal of such an atmosphere possible.  Overall, the film is quite successful in what it tries to do: make a case for working class unity in the face of the class struggle.  It’s an important film in American cinema and is all too often overlooked.