Salt of the Earth (1954)

“I want to arise, and push everything up with me as I go.”

Synopsis:
Along with others in her community, the wife (Rosaria Revueltas) of a zinc mine worker (Juan Chacon) resists traditional gender norms in supporting the men in their strike for better working and living conditions.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary begins his review of this “remarkable, stirring political film” by explaining that it “tells the true story of a successful 13-month strike at a zinc mine in New Mexico, begun in 1953… that was won because the wives of the miners took over the picket line after a Taft-Hartley injunction enjoined their husbands from picketing.” He writes that “not only does this film give women proper recognition for their contribution to the labor movement of the seventies, in that it makes an issue of equality in jobs, equality in the home, and sexual equality” but that “this was the first American narrative film set in America that dared to have women standing with their husbands against the oppressors”: “Significantly, their liberation is achieved by them independently — it is not, cannot, be given them by men; their liberation is then in turn a liberating catalyst for men, who are also trapped by sex-role conventions.” He adds that “the film’s strong theme is that the liberated woman is no real threat to her man; her existence will benefit him.”

Despite being “called a subversive film in Congress and the New York Times before its release”, this is actually a “pro-human rather than anti-American” film, one “which makes no pitch for revolution — just solidarity against the power elite, encompassing racial brotherhood and sexual equality”. Peary notes that the “script was written with cooperation of the participants in the strike, many of whom act in the film”, and that “we are touched by the characters because they are not epic figures — only when they stand together do they take on heroic proportions.” This engaging film (one that “lives up to the legend”) possesses “many scenes [that] will cause smiles, tears, cheers”, and was selected by Peary (over On the Waterfront, which he doesn’t even nominate) as Best Movie of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he refers to it as “the greatest political narrative ever made in the United States.”

In his Alternate Oscars review, Peary notes his pleasure in giving the award to a film “made by people blacklisted in Hollywood (director [Herbert] Biberman, producer Paul Jarrico, writer Michael Wilson, cinematographers Leonard Stark and Stanley Meredith, composer Sol Kaplan, [and] actor Will Geer, among them), television workers, and blacks not allowed in Roy Brewer’s segregated International Alliance of Theatrical and State Employees; was cast mostly with the working people the film is about; was condemned in the Hollywood Press, The New York Times, and by RKO box Howard Hughes and members of HUAC; was processed surreptitiously because Hollywood labs refused to handle it; was edited secretly; and was booked into only thirteen theaters nationally (and those theaters were picketed) because Brewer’s IATSE projectionists refused to show it.” With such a lengthy list of constraints, one might expect this movie to be both less polished and more pedantic than it is — but it remains surprisingly engaging, and more relevant than ever. It’s a pleasure to know, as Peary writes from taking with producer Jarrico, that it “has been seen, probably, by more people than any film in history.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rosaura Revueltas as Esperanza
  • Fine performances by the non-professional cast
  • Powerful direction and cinematography

  • Appropriately disturbing evidence of entrenched racism and sexism

Must See?
Yes, both for its historical relevance and as a still-noteworthy drama. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 2 book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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