Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents the only film ever blacklisted in the United States. A movie about Mexican-American miners striking for wage equality and safety that foretold the civil rights movement. A movie that has become wildly relevant in the past few years.
Our roots go deep in this place.
The film opens with the sibilant, sweet voice of Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas) declaring both the ownership of the land they’re on and the reality that they’re not the true owners. Their roots go deep, but they’re second class citizens. The town of San Marcos, New Mexico has been transformed into Zinc Town and Quintero’s husband works in the mines there. The conditions are dire, and the money isn’t much, and the workers decide to go on strike. Even though Esperanza’s husband Ramon (Juan Chacon) is a key figure in the fight – even he still sees his wife as inferior, and finding true equality becomes more elusive to obtain.
There are a host of current events that create the ingredients for the cultural crucible in which we find ourselves. Right-wing commentator Glenn Beck is reclaiming America in the name of libertarian-style freedom. A civil rights movement is contentiously being fought over regarding marriage rights for homosexuals. Border security and illegal immigration have grown as favorite stumping grounds for politicians, and SB 1070 has divided the country right down the middle. As if the universe weren’t already pointing to Salt of the Earth, there are 33 men trapped in a mine in Chile who are tragically looking at the possibility of spending the next few months in the dark.
Salt of the Earth is a strong film, but it’s clear why it’s not one of the icons of the 50s. The deft direction of Herbert J. Biberman is on full display here, and his decision to use local, non-professional actors grants a depth of authenticity to the picture (along with an ironic sense that belies the pro-union message). Rosaura Revueltas was one of the few pros on screen, and she delivers a gripping performance that’s understated and heartbreaking. Esperanza is a woman afraid to take a stand. She is more content to be passive, especially in the face of a powerful husband who is blind to his own prejudices, but “Esperanza” is also the Spanish word for “Hope.”
However, the exterior story of the film greatly overshadows its quality.
Biberman was one of The Hollywood Ten – convicted of contempt of court when he refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The same year that his writing saw the screen with New Orleans, the writer/director spent 6 months in jail in Texarkana. Blacklisted, he was forced to work independently, but in just a few years, Salt of the Earth emerged.
This, of course, shoved his name even further into the mud – a move that Biberman must have seen coming. Still, for what might very well be a filmic act of rebellion, Salt of the Earth is surprisingly devoid of any snark, pot shots, polemic, or passive aggressive forcing of an agenda. Yes, it’s a film about Mexican-Americans striking as a collective, but the drama comes more from the character interactions within that group and the difficulty of having a unified message when humans are so diverse. Through modern eyes, it’s hard to see why a film that simply focused on the workers’ struggle was so damned controversial.
Beyond the in-fighting, Esperanza stands out as the true main character, and it was a bold move to have the male protagonist (who seemingly represents the union movement) so filled with prejudice toward another minority. Especially a character so sympathetic. If Biberman had made an empty, angry rant against the establishment that put him in jail for its paranoia, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it today, but he had the foresight and skill to create a moving film regardless of its content and subtext.
The movie was descended upon by Those That Knew Better even before the cameras rolled. The political environment hadn’t calmed. It had galvanized. The committee that put Biberman away had been replaced by McCarthyism, and fear of the Soviets was reaching a fever pitch.
Salt of the Earth might have an honest shot at taking the title for most harrowing production. They didn’t have to pull a boat over dry land, but people disrupted takes with noise, Revueltas was deported, the set was shot at by vigilantes, the House of Representatives officially decried the project for being pro-Communist, and the production had trouble processing the film because companies refused to touch the toxic thing.
All of the struggle to make the film was rewarded, though, when no one would screen it.
It’s difficult in our time to imagine the Federal legislative body of the country passing a declaration speaking out against a movie. It’s difficult to imagine so many unifying for the common cause of making sure a filmmaker is discouraged from seeing his vision through. There are boycotts, but nothing as severe or organized as what happened to this film – a film that only saw the flickering light of 12 theaters upon its release.
It’s films like this one, though, that push through ignorance and inspire those who need inspiring. The civil rights movement foreseen in the film actually bolstered awareness of the movie, and it found a new life. After emboldening the few, the few spread the word.
There is beauty in the film. Not because of a particular message or political invective. Not because of its ability to see the social waves of the future. Not because it has a strange echo all these years later. There is beauty in the film because it tells an intimate human story. It was vilified as propaganda, but the core of the narrative is one of an underdog fighting against a much larger force. Men and women covered in dirt, fighting and scraping their way to life, liberty and happiness. That’s the most American story there is.
Our roots go deep in this place, and Esperanza means Hope.