Salt of the Earth is an important movie that bears recovery for those of us who are interested in resisting Donald Trump and his administration. Released in 1954, it has a dubious distinction: it is the only film ever banned in the United States. Harassed by politicians, the FBI, leaders of the movie industry (including Howard Hughes), and especially a right-wing union official in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Operators of the United States and Canada (the movie projectors’ union), it was shown in only 13 movie theaters across this country. Yet the Library of Congress considers it one of the 100-best American made films, although that designation was made a few years ago; in any case, it is a “classic,” probably unknown to most of today’s younger activists, and I want to bring it to their attention.
To recount: the film is based on an actual strike by Mine-Mill (officially, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers) Local 890 in Bayard, Grant County in southwestern New Mexico that began in October 1950. The local was largely comprised of Mexican-American (Chicano) and Mexican workers, although there were some Anglo (white) members of the union. Building off a long tradition of Chicano worker militance, the workers were protesting their low pay as well as Empire Zinc’s wage inequality between this largely Chicano local and workers in nearby Anglo-dominated mines.
After seven months on strike, the company got a court injunction, demanding the strikers take down their picket line—this caused a crisis for the union: if they took it down, scabs could cross the line and steal their jobs, destroying the union and the strike; if they refused the court order, the authorities would arrest all of the picketers, breaking the picket line and …: you get the picture.
Into the breech jump the wives of the miners: noting the injunction is only limited to “miners,” they argue they should take over the picket line; that the injunction doesn’t apply to wives and other non-miners. The women take over the picket line, hold despite extensive provocations by the authorities and even assault—one woman was run over by a truck of scabs—and the strike is won. (Note that this is in 1951, even before Rosa Parks made her stand in Montgomery.)
Far away, in Southern California, several people who had been blacklisted in Hollywood for their Communist Party-affiliations, had created a film company to produce films and break the Hollywood blacklist. Eventually, they heard of Mine-Mill Local 890’s strike against Empire Zinc, investigated further and decided to make a move, eventually titled “Salt of the Earth.” (Available on-line for free at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9oY4rmDaWw .)
This film is, in this writer’s opinion, simply amazing. With full support of the International Mine-Mill leadership—a union that had been expelled by the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1949 because of its “left” leadership—and with the full participation of Local 890, it tells the strike from the worker’s side. Rare enough—and pathbreaking at the time—but this story was told though the life and perspective of a Chicana, a female Mexican-American! So, you have a story about workers of color, told by a woman of color, who, within the context of the struggle, focuses on the challenges by women against male supremacy, which was necessary to win the strike. This is a film that is honestly looking at worker, Chicano and female oppression all at the same time, and tells the story of how all of this was collectively overcome. Again, keep in mind this was made in the early 1950s.
The process by which the movie was made was important. While the script was written by a white male, Michael Wilson (who later co-wrote Bridge on the River Kwai, and received an Oscar for it), the script was shared with the mining community, and rigorously discussed and debated by the people involved in the struggle. The film team insisted the community be involved and had the final say. Not only that, but almost all of the actors/actresses were people who had been involved in the strike: there are very few “professional” actors in this movie. If one looks at the faces of the “miners” in the movie, you don’t see Hollywood-style “beautiful people,” but some amazing faces of people who have known nothing but hard work and destitution for most of their lives, and they are telling their own story. And while most of the movie is in English, some of the Spanish is not translated.
The book, whose full title is The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America, tells the story of the campaign to keep the American public from ever viewing the film.
The author has done an excellent job with the book. He searched numerous archives for related materials, and interviewed all of the principals who were then living. (I believe all are now dead.) He looked at this from various sides and took a critical approach, so this is no uncritical “paean” to the movie makers. Yet, the respect he shows for the people involved is clear, and his analysis powerful.
[One detail he missed, a story I got years ago from Isadore Salkind, a Representative of Mine-Mill who replaced the union’s International Rep, Clinton Jencks, after Jencks and his wife, Virginia, were pulled out by the union after the strike: at the end of the movie, we see Esperanza with a black background, which was not seen in the rest of the movie. The actress playing Esperanza was a Mexican National named Rosaura Revueltas, who had not gotten her papers stamped when she entered the US to play this role. (For many years, travel back and forth across the border was done informally with people rarely required to show formal documentation.) In efforts to stop production, the FBI arrested her for illegally entering the country. Out on bail, activists smuggled her back into Mexico, where her last scenes were shot. As far as I know, the award-winning Revueltas was never allowed in another film in the US or Mexico after “Salt.”]
Unfortunately, the effort to make socially relevant movies to break the blacklist initially failed. As the author details, because of the repression, “Salt” was never shown widely, and the principals lost money they had invested to make the movie. However, things began to change after the movie was made, and eventually the blacklist was broken. “Salt” historically is one of the predecessors of the independent movie phenomenon that’s emerged over the past 20 or so years.
The movie “resurfaced” or was “resurrected” in 1965 by SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, which showed the movie in New York City, and it remains available today, on-line and on CD. As stated, the movie—which has strong feminist politics, including talk of “sex equality,” preceding second wave feminism—remains very powerful, and my university students today are generally very taken with it, even though nothing is blown up (other than a malfunctioning fuse to a stick of dynamite in the beginning of the film). I recommend it highly.
Besides the film’s value in and of itself, January 22’s Women’s March (around the world) reasserted the value and potency of women’s and their male supporters’ involvement in leadership of this country (and the world). It is going to need, in my opinion, the development of organization and conscious leadership development. I’m suggesting that revisiting this film might be one place to start the process of consolidating the resistance, and I suggest this movie is best watched with other people.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is a long-time political and labor activist, who “turned around” while on active duty in the US Marine Corps (1969-73). He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, although he lives in Chicago. His latest book is an edited collection titled Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization. He can be reached at email@example.com.