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Salt of the Earth (1954) is an American drama film written by Michael Wilson, directed by Herbert J. Biberman, and produced by Paul Jarrico. All had been blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment due to their alleged involvement in communist politics.
The film is one of the first pictures to advance the feminist social and political point of view. Its plot centers on a long and difficult strike, based on the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico. In the film, the company is identified as “Delaware Zinc,” and the setting is “Zinctown, New Mexico.” The film shows how the miners, the company, and the police react during the strike. In neorealist style, the producers and director used actual miners and their families as actors in the film.
The film opens with a narration from Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas). She begins:
“How shall I begin my story that has no beginning? My name is Esperanza, Esperanza Quintero. I am a miner’s wife. This is our home. The house is not ours. But the flowers… the flowers are ours. This is my village. When I was a child, it was called San Marcos. The Anglos changed the name to Zinc Town. Zinc Town, New Mexico, U.S.A. Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft…”
The issues the miners strike for include equity in wages with Anglo workers and health and safety issues. Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacon) helps organize the strike, but at home he treats his wife as a second-class citizen. His wife, Esperanza Quintero, pregnant with their third child, is passive at first and reluctant either to take part in the strike or to assert her rights for equality at home. She changes her attitude when the men are forced to end their picketing by a Taft-Hartley Act injunction. At the union hall, the women convince the men after a long debate that they should be allowed to participate and they join the picket line.
The film was called subversive and blacklisted because the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers sponsored it and many blacklisted Hollywood professionals helped produce it. The union had been expelled from the CIO in 1950 for its alleged communist-dominated leadership.
Director Herbert Biberman was one of the Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities on questions of CPUSA affiliation in 1947. The Hollywood Ten were cited and convicted for contempt of Congress and jailed. Biberman was imprisoned in the Federal Correctional Institution at Texarkana for six months. After his release he directed this film. Other participants who made the film and were blacklisted by the Hollywood studios include: Paul Jarrico, Will Geer, Rosaura Revueltas, and Michael Wilson.
The producers cast only five professional actors. The rest were locals from Grant County, New Mexico, or members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890, many of whom were part of the strike that inspired the plot. Juan Chacón, for example, was a real-life Union Local president. In the film he plays the protagonist, who has trouble dealing with women as equals. The director was reluctant to cast him at first, thinking he was too “gentle,” but both Revueltas and his sister-in-law, Sonja Dahl Biberman, wife of Biberman’s brother Edward, urged him to cast Chacón as Ramon.
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