small d, Big J

What Steven desJardins is interested in.
Saturday, January 11, 2003

I just finished watching Salt of the Earth, a 1954 movie produced by five of the Hollywood Ten. It's a rousing story about a strike by Mexican-American workers against a New Mexico zinc mine, worth watching for its own sake. But what really makes this movie worth seeing is the story of how it was made. The bonus material on the disk details harassment by the film industry, which threatened cameramen and other film crew if they worked on the movie, by post-production facilities, which refused to work on the print, by distributors and movie theaters which refused to show it. The hostility is all the more astonishing once you've seen the movie, because there's nothing a reasonable person could object to. The company is shown acting in bad faith, refusing to negotiate, and collaborating with local law enforcement to harass and jail organizers. Anyone who believes that this didn't happen is witless. Anyone who believes that it shouldn't be talked about is a coward, a person who not only supports corrupt and illegitimate activity but isn't willing to argue his position openly and fairly.

The film itself is far from a polemic, by the way. One of the themes is that the success of the strike depends not merely on solidarity among the miners, but among the whole community, including the women. One of the key demands that women press for is improved sanitation, with hot water running to the miner's houses so they don't have to spend all day chopping wood. After an injunction bars the striking miners from picketing, and the women take over the picket lines, the men come to appreciate this point.

The black-and-white cinematography is quite nice, making the setting visually appealing without romanticizing it or erasing the dirt. The performances are mostly nonprofessional, which adds an air of reality to the movie. The characters look and sound like regular people. This movie is worth renting, if you can find it. (Netflix has copies, but you may be in for a long wait.)

UPDATE: I watched some more of the bonus material, and found out that the Empire Zinc Company had tried to break the strike by claiming that Communist subversives had infiltrated the union (because those Mexicans wouldn't strike over little things like lower pay and more dangerous working conditions, right?). So the effort to suppress the movie makes a little more sense, as does the decision to make a movie about this particular strike.


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