“Whose neck shall I stand on to make me feel superior, and what will I have out of it? I don’t want anything lower than I am. I am low enough already. I want to rise and to push everything up with me as I go.”
‘Salt of the Earth’, directed by Herbert J. Biberman in 1954, is an American neorealist movie that focuses on a long strike by miners in New Mexico. It’s notable for being written, produced and directed by people who were blacklisted after the HUAC investigations in Hollywood in the 1940s whilst the cast were a mixture of real miners and union officials and actors. On release it was accused of being subversive Communist propaganda and it was denounced and buried for years only surfacing in the 1960s before being preserved by the Library of Congress in the 1990s. The story is simple but powerful one, a group of Mexican-American and American mineworkers strike over the lack of safety precautions in their working lives and the film follows them and their families, specifically their wives, as they battle against the police and the mine owner. It’s a film about equality, both for the working class, the Mexican-Americans and for women. In one pivotal scene, the wives of the mineworkers volunteer to swap places with their husbands and to take over their picket to prevent them from going to prison. The film, thus, gives equal weight to all the characters both in terms of dramatic agency and screen-time. It is left-wing and clearly an angry reaction to the McCarthyism, but it is also consistent in its beliefs and scrupulous in its sense of equality. It’s also, in the tradition of the neorealist genre, a stark, streamlined film, the characters and landscape are not romanticised any more than the country it takes place within. It’s one of those films you’d want to force Donald Trump to counter his sense of a golden past in which America was ‘great’, but also to demonstrate a righteous aspect to the history of the Mexican migrant worker in the southwestern states.
Would I recommend it? Yes, particularly before the US election, and the EU referendum for that matter. Perhaps balanced in a double-bill with the equally political ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ or ‘The Fireman’s Ball’, films that show communism from a different angle.