Joe Sabatini re-examines the 1951 film ‘Salt of the Earth’ and argues for its contemporary relevance and importance.
2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the political classic: The Salt of the Earth.
Salt dramatises a strike that took place in 1951 against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico. In the film, the names of the company and the setting are changed to Delaware Zinc, and Zinctown, but other details remain the same – to the extent that the bulk of the cast is made up of the miners, families and political organisers themselves. But the film’s autonomy from the Hollywood studio system does not stop there.
The International Union of Mineworkers and Smelters, who were expelled in 1950 from Confederation of Industrial Organisation (CIO), due to communist presence and radical militancy, supported the strike, and financed the movie. Meanwhile all of the professionals who assisted in the making of Salt (including the five acting professionals) were Blacklisted, and many of them were from the famous 10 who resisted the House of UnAmerican Activities and were imprisoned (including the director Herbert Biberman). It is this conjunction that gives a real explosive charge to Salt.
Key to the film is its depiction of the way people change through the process of struggle. What begins as a strike soon spreads into an attack on the state, and most especially, explores the wider articulation of demands relating to gender, ethnicity and youth.
The single most impressive aspect of the film lies in its handling of gender equality, which is truly dialectical. At the beginning we see men striking with work related demands, whilst denying the demands about sanitation and running water put forward by their wives.
This struggle is depicted on multiple planes, through mass meetings, relations between husbands and wives at home, and finally on the picket line and the police station. The dialogue throughout is a great tool of political education. In the first meeting in which women raise a demand for running water, the male chair says from the floor:
“First we have to get equality for the job, then we can look at other demands.”
Several months later, with the women locked up for taking over the picket lines, two male strikers are seen hanging out the washing and looking after the children. One of them says: “There are two kinds of slavery, work slavery and domestic slavery. It’s called the woman question.” The second man, baffled, replies “The woman question?”
Through this dialectical process the film demonstrates how gender inequalities breakdown and reconfigure, and it is this interplay that is the real strength of the film.
Not only are gender relations transformed, but race inequality too. The relationship between the Latino mining community and the white ‘Anglo’ union organiser is fascinating. When the strike begins the representatives of the management speak to the Union organiser to ask him to speak to the men. His response is: “They don’t work for me, I work for them.”
However in a great scene, Ramon, the main male character, challenges the Union organiser’s stance on race equality. Pointing to a picture in Ramon’s living room, he notes how the organiser asked if that was his grandfather, when in fact it was the founder of Mexico. He then adds, that if he walked into an Anglo’s room and asked if George Washington was the person’s grandfather he would be laughed at.
There are other great lines that are as fresh as the morning:
First speaker: “Why don’t they ever say to bosses, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”
Second speaker: “Because there would be no bosses left in the state of New Mexico.”
Another line that sticks in the memory is from a dialogue between two women on the picket line: “Anything worth learning hurts, these changes come with pain.”
In terms of cinematic form, the film is shot in the style of contemporary Italian Neo-Realism. The camera tries not to draw attention to its workings, but lets the situation and characters be the focus. However there are moments of maximum tension where the fast cutting methods of Eisenstein come to the fore. One place where this is worked to great effect is where the main couple, Esperanza and her husband Ramon, are depicted simultaneously, one in the pains of child labour and the other being beaten up in a police car. Through rapid cutting we move from the pains of one to the other, as they scream each other’s name, and finally there is a dissolving shot of them both superimposed.
This is one place where the camera tells us more about the relations than the people themselves can acknowledge, and foreshadows their own process of mutual recognition as partners in struggle.
Salt really strikes at the heart of debates about class struggle, oppression and the relationship between production and reproduction. Above all, the film demonstrates the power that is unleashed by the co-evolution of industrial militancy and community activism. It is a film that is still ahead of its time 60 years later.