The Suppression of Salt of the Earth – James J. Lorence

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Bob Wake
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The 1954 motion picture Salt of the Earth, based on the true story of a New Mexico zinc miners’ strike, can easily be rented or purchased today on video. However, if you were among the two thousand moviegoers on May 28, 1954 who bought a ticket to see the film at Chicago’s Cinema Annex theater, you would have been out of luck because the projectionist never showed up. After turning away frustrated ticket-holders for three days, the theater finally cancelled the booking. In fact, there wasn’t a theater or projectionist anywhere in Chicago — or Detroit or dozens of other American cities — that would touch Salt of the Earth. This extraordinary turn of events is the subject of James J. Lorence’s prodigiously researched book, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth, published last year by the University of New Mexico Press. The book’s thesis is spelled out in its muckraking subtitle: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America.

Salt of the Earth was the inaugural film project of the Independent Productions Corporation (IPC), formed in 1951 by a small group of Hollywood Communists who were convinced they could circumvent the industry’s blacklist by working outside of the studio system. The film’s director, Herbert Biberman, had spent six months in prison as one of the Hollywood Ten who declined to give testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Biberman and his blacklisted IPC partners — Paul Jerrico, Michael Wilson, and Adrian Scott — had all been members at one time or another of the Communist Party and were steadfast believers in the inseparability of art and ideology. The Salt project was born when the filmmakers were told of a strike by Mexican-American mine workers against the Empire Zinc Corporation in Bayard, New Mexico. The issues at stake included racist "dual wage rates" that allotted higher pay to Anglo workers over Mexican-Americans, and Empire Zinc’s "policy of hiring only Mexican-Americans for underground work." The film was scripted and shot on location in Bayard within months of the strike’s settlement. Workers and wives who had walked the picket lines took prominent roles in the movie and helped to shape Michael Wilson’s screenplay.

The strikers were members of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (also known simply as Mine-Mill), an organization victimized by the same anticommunist purges underway in Hollywood. Mine-Mill was booted from the CIO in 1950 because of alleged Communist activity. As Lorence makes clear in The Suppression of Salt of the Earth, Red-baiting was a notoriously effective means of union-busting during the Cold War. Certainly there were Communists in Local 890, as well as assorted leftists and radicals of varying degrees. But in Lorence’s view, there was no evidence that union leaders or rank-and-file members were beholden to Communist Party principles at the expense of legitimate bread-and-butter grievances. The same must be said of the filmmakers as well. Lorence is at pains to make this point because Salt of the Earth has been assailed over the years from both the left and the right as hardcore Communist propaganda. (The film’s $250,000 budget was bankrolled by Los Angeles theater-owner Simon M. Lazarus, an outspoken left-wing activist with no ties to the Communist Party. The FBI struggled mightily to uncover a financial link, but none was ever established.)

Given the witch-hunting hysteria of the 1950s, it’s hardly surprising that the film ran into serious trouble from its inception. Even before the cameras began to roll in Bayard, the Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that a "commie" film was being shot in New Mexico under "direct orders from the Kremlin." California Republican congressman Donald Jackson was soon denouncing Salt of the Earth from the floor of the House of Representatives, promising to do all he could "to prevent the showing of this Communist-made film in the theaters of America." The darkest force inveighed against the film was the enormous power of the Hollywood blacklist, particularly Roy Brewer of the International Alliance of Theatrical Employees. Brewer made it virtually impossible for the filmmakers to hire Hollywood union crews (unless, like editor Barton Hayes, they also happened to be FBI informants). Laboratories refused to process the film once it was shot, thus delaying postproduction work for months. Perhaps the saddest indignity heaped upon the filmmakers was the deportation of Rosaura Revueltas, the Mexican actress who plays the movie’s central character of Esperanza. Her visa was revoked and she wasn’t allowed back in the States to promote the film during its ill-fated marketing campaign.

The McCarthy era has been subject in recent years to renewed controversy and academic interest. Lorence — a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin –doesn’t shy away from pinpointing the major fault line: "Because of the contentious contemporary debate over Communist influence in left-wing unions, rational evaluation and historical generalization have often been difficult." To his credit, he explores this problem with a thorough grasp of its complexities. While his sympathies clearly lie with Local 890 and the filmmakers, Lorence’s own conflicted leftism wisely restrains him from painting the story in simple black and white terms. His criticisms of the film include "romanticism, naivete, and an incomplete grasp of Chicano/Chicana history," in addition to a screenplay that "left much to be desired, especially as a documentary record of historical events." Furthermore, Lorence is unexpectedly tough on director Herbert Biberman, who is portrayed throughout the book as a hapless and deluded idealist, "politically naive," and "borderline racist" in his dealings with the Mexican-American cast of the film. Prior to his death in 1971, Biberman published a self-serving but nonetheless invaluable 1965 memoir, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film

Salt of the Earth never received the wide release its makers had hoped for, but it did manage to play briefly in New York and San Francisco to enthusiastic crowds and generally warm reviews. (Its harshest detractor was Pauline Kael, who reviewed the film for Sight and Sound in 1954 and labeled it "as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.") There were successful screenings in Toronto and Mexico City. In France, it won the 1955 International Grand Prize from the Academie du Cinema de Paris. During the 1960s and 70s, Salt of the Earth was rediscovered and embraced by America’s New Left and became a staple of labor rallies, campus film clubs, and art houses. More recently, it has been the basis for an opera, Esperanza, which premiered in Madison, Wisconsin in August, 2000. The concluding words of James J. Lorence’s fascinating book are an eloquent summation of the film’s legacy: "For all the vicissitudes of its troubled history, Salt of the Earth remains a fragile celluloid monument to [the] culture of resistance."

Bob Wake

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