”Salt of the Earth” is according to the Book the only larger film made by communists in America and is about a famous strike in a zinc mine in New Mexico. If you guessed that there is a certain propaganda element to the movie and that this caused negative attention and trouble then you are quite right.
Why is it that propaganda movies, especially left-wing propaganda movies feels so tiresome? There are some clichés and stereotypes that we have to get dragged through: The cold and mean masters, the heroic worker, the common good and the collective effort. Here in the aftermath of world communism these elements as they were presented in the heyday feels way too simplistic to really be taken seriously and they often have the opposite effect, to make the authors look manipulative and outside reality. To my mind such movies would be far more successful in their message by toning those elements down and be less one-dimensional. Alas, this is the 1950’ies and an environment where you are either for or against with no room for middle of the road approaches.
In this case practically everybody involved in the movie were blacklisted and the movie feels like a reaction to that exclusion as if “to hell with it, we are blacklisted anyway, let’s make a real Commie movie”.
The movie is about a mining community that has to put up with the mine-owner’s penny pinching and unequal treatment of its employees. A large part of these are Hispanic and they are treated poorer than their “Anglo” counterparts. When there is an accident in the mine it triggers the strike that the community has been warming up to for a while and the rest of the movie is the resolution of that strike.
As long as the focus is on the miners and the strike the movie is tedious at best. As much as the miners have a good case the presentation of it makes it too easy to refuse it as propaganda. But then something clever happens that changes the focus of the movie. It becomes a movie about emancipation of women. Not just in the workplace as befits a socialist propaganda movie, but privately in the homes, culturally in Mexican versus Anglo families and as a part of the community. It made me sit up straight because this is a lot more interesting than a miners strike and something which reaches far beyond propaganda. In fact, because of this element I would rather call this a feminist movie than a socialist movie.
The key figures are Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) and Ramon (Juan Chacón) Quintero, a Hispanic couple with a pile of children. Ramon is a leading figure among the miners and Esperanza, the narrator of the movie, is his obedient and heavily pregnant wife. Theirs is a very traditional family with clearly defined roles and Ramon as undisputed leader of the household. Esperanza looks tired and apathetic, but over the course of the movie as events develop she finds her voice and her courage as she steps into action. The triggering event is when the miners are court ordered to abandon the picket line and the women step in and take over. Now it is them who fights the police and calls the shots and it awakens a confidence in them that changes their outlook on their roles in the community, but particularly at home and nowhere is that transformation clearer than for Esperanza.
Ramon and the other men do not like this. They feel challenged and it hurts their pride and feeling of macho that they are no longer the ones calling the shots. The two best scenes of the movie is Ramon and his neighbor hanging laundry while looking after the children and all them men lined up at the bar looking depressed while they stare at their beer. Such a bitter pill to swallow. Their reaction is to go hunting. Shoot some animals and get away from that new reality where they are no longer kings. Does that sound familiar? We men are a predictable lot.
The police who largely works for the mine owners (as they always do in left leaning propaganda, just look at Eisenstein) are at a loss how to fight the women. The men they can beat up, but can they be as brutal towards women? The collective strength of the women is a lot more than a socialist message but the first example I have seen on the List of feminism. Where the communist message feels backward already in 54 the feminist message is far ahead of its time. The classic 50’es values, even as referenced today are the old, static gender roles of the housewife and her husband, the bread-bringer. The message here is a revolt against those stereotypes.
“Salt of the Earth” may have been denounced as socialist propaganda, but the real subversive power is its feminist message. That is its value and significance and it is what makes it worthwhile to watch this movie even today.
Tomorrow I will be heading to Italy for some vacation with my family so I will be off the grid for a little while. When I am back it will be time to finish 1954. Chiao.