Review of Salt of the Earth, a movie blacklisted in America for its socialist message
Esperanza, in Spanish means ‘Hope’. Hope finds a way to bloom in the darkest of times; sweeping away the pangs of depression, motivating us to struggle harder against mounting odds and securing to us victories that cannot be undone. Often times, we are too short sighted in counting the perishable material gains of a struggle in a business like cost benefit analysis and we fail to appreciate the lasting gains we make as communities in reshaping our world as a more humane society. Esperanza, wife of a miner in the 1954 Hollywood movie, ‘Salt of the Earth’, invites us to measure a struggle by the values it engenders among the working class than the material gains it might secure to the workers. Produced during the heights of anti communist purges in USA, this movie, which closely traces the course of a 1951 miners strike in New Mexico,was blacklisted by Hollywood for its socialist message. It was not allowed to be screened in almost all theaters in USA. Yet with time, it has received critical acclaim for blending the politics of feminism and working class. It has also become a legend of its times for bravely weathering the McCarthy Era.
Equality and Dignity
Where there is no equality, there shall be no dignity, not to the oppressed but neither for the oppressor. In a powerful scene, Esperanza, wife of Quintero – a miner, and the mother of three children challenges Quintero to introspect if he has treated her with dignity and equality, even as he fights for the same against the mining company bosses. This scene takes the central contradiction that underpins the script to a climax.
The womenfolk in Zinc Town, take care of the household as the men toil in dangerous conditions in the zinc mine. The workers, predominantly Mexican Americans, have been facing discriminatory working conditions against the Anglo American workers. Not only do they get paid less, they endure more dangerous conditions of work. The women also complain of similar discrimination regarding sanitation and water supply in residential facilities. Their demands on plumbing and sewage are consistently relegated and traded off by the union negotiators in favour of worksite demands. When an accident in the mine results in a worker’s death, the workers brazen a strike with the reluctant support of the international federation. The women decide to form an auxiliary wing in support of the picketing miners.
After many intimidations by the police and the company fails to break the picket, the company is able to obtain a court injunction against miners’ picket. This would enable the company to recruit strike breakers. To stall this possibility, the women decide to stand the picket line much to the chagrin of the men. The men feel the picket line is no place for a woman, but accept this solution in their vulnerability. As the women take to the picket lines, the men tend to the laundry lines back home, prepare meals and take care of the children. They begin to appreciate the demands by the women for plumbing. After many attempts by the police and company officials to break the picket line including cutting rations from company store, denying services of the company doctor, arrests, harassments and even eviction from company quarters, the woman prevail.
After 15 months, the company relents to the demands of the mine workers including improvement to housing. The struggle also overturns centuries of patriarchy that had defined role division and confined women to domestication. Through the struggle, women realize their potential while the men recognize the value of domestic work and learn to manage the house. But the most enduring product of the struggle is the Dignity that the women won for themselves within the family and in so doing also won it for the men at work.
The working class unlike other identities is an inclusive identity. It is not our birth, but our will to labour that brings us together in communion as a class. Yet we have erected so many walls and barricades around us. We discriminate each other by gender, race and caste, weakening ourselves. From the first scene, this movie exposes this contradiction. Be it the division of labour at home between the man and woman, or the discrimination by skin colour or birth, we are caught into the very structures that have imprisoned us. The miners struggle of 1951 and its fictionalized version shows how a determined struggle could change these social hierarchies.
An Idea shall find Expression
The movie could be considered a docu-drama in portraying the real life incidents of 1951 miners’ strike in Empire Zinc Mines, New Mexico. The plot depicts the events of the strike, including the women’s picket, their arrests and eventual victory through a fictional narrative by Esperanzo, played by Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the actors were from the mining community with only four other professional actors performing key roles. The director, Herbert Biberman, the screen writer Michael Wilson, and the producer were all black listed by Hollywood studios (Hollywood 10) as they were considered to have communist leanings. The movie itself was labeled as soviet propaganda and black listed by the Studios with US government investigating the funding sources for the production. Blacklisting meant the movie could not make use of studio labs for post production work, editing, printing and even theaters to screen. It was kept out of the cinema theaters in US for 10 years, causing severe financial and emotional strain on the movie makers. Rosauro Revueltas was even deported to Mexico and barred from acting in US for a long time.
But it was kept alive through unions, womens’ groups and other activists and even travelled to Europe where it was well received. It inspired a small collective called the ‘Salt of the Earth Labour College’ in Tucson, Arizona. After a decade of censorship, the movie was steadily accepted and received critical acclaim eventually making to the National Film Archives. Today it is available in digital format and is regarded as milestone in Hollywood history.
The Past is not Dead….
Faraway from the American continent, 60 years later, we might tend to regard these events as a story from the past. But how different is our times now? How different is our Government? How different are we in discriminating our fellow people on the basis of caste, ethnicity and above all gender?
The lands of our Adivasi siblings are being pillaged every day in the name of development. Deep mines are dug, mountains cut down, their water polluted, their forests laid bare. Last year marked the deadliest year for mine workers in India. Most of them come from the tribal or the Dalit community. Every time, a group raises these issues and demands justice for the people, they are quickly branded as Maoists, sent to jail for years. G.N Saibaba, a vocal critic of Indian corporate sector’s plunder of Central India, was convicted for no other crime but of being a Maoist and has been given life sentence. Thousands of adivasis are languishing in the jails of Chattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand without trial or bail. Yet our media has kept this disturbing news about our brothers and sisters from us, lest it spoil our pleasant weekends. Our claim to democracy remains untarnished by these facts.
In our cities, hundreds die every year, cleaning sewer lines. Having banned manual scavenging on paper many times, our governments have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to these issues. Kakoos, a documentary on this inhumane practice is hastily branded as causing public disturbance and banned from being screened. Workers agitations are broken with extreme police force, workers incarcerated in jails for years to show our governments pro corporate policies. When people raise up against these actions, they are branded ‘foreign agents’, ‘terrorists’ or ‘anti development’. It only makes it clear that in the era of neoliberal capitalism, democracy is a farce.
The working class organizations have fared no better. Even as increasing number of women, young and old, are being drawn into paid work, working class organizations remain woefully male dominated. Even in sectors that are dominated by women workers, unions tend towards male leadership. Not recognizing the severe restrictions that a patriarchic society imposes on women, unions tend to expect that women participate within the structures created by and for men. When the women fail to engage with enthusiasm, it is often blamed back on them (sometimes sympathetically) ‘being a woman’. Rather than introspect and rectify the institutions to be inclusive of women, the institutional structures seek women to fit themselves into these structures. Even when women take initiative, like in Munnar Tea Plantation struggles, or the Bangalore Garment Workers strike, these eruptions of workers power are ‘main streamed’ and men tend to take back control and direction of the struggle. When resisted, it is blamed as a subversive attempt to break working class unity. This condition only exposes the social backwardness in our working class organizations that we have collectively overcome.
‘Salt of the Earth’ is a call to the working class movement to learn from the past rather than relive it in all its tribulations. It is a moving narrative of how we are shaped by our struggles and we can reshape this world. What the miners won that day was not a few dollars more, what the women won that day was not hot water in their kitchen. For themselves and for generations to come behind them, they had won Dignity, Equality and Freedom. The wages may fall again and the hot water might go cold, but if we learn nothing from their struggles in reshaping our values, the working class would have squandered a rich legacy which is our true inheritance.
** The title is taken from the slogan of Oaxaca Teachers in Mexico. For more information about their struggle, http://www.leftvoice.org/Maquila-Workers-Against-Femicide-and-Exploitation