Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1953)
It occurred to me sometime after I had watched it that it would have been a great idea to co-review Salt of the Earth, Herbert Biberman’s muckraking 1953 film about the Empire Zinc Mine strike in southwestern New Mexico, and Dreams of Dust, Laurent Salgues’ 2006 drama about Nigerian immigrants who turn to gold mining in Burkina Faso to make a living. Unfortunately, by the time I came up with that idea, I had long completed my Dreams of Dust review, but if you’ve seen one of them, you would do yourself a service seeking the other one out. For two movies that couldn’t be more different on a meta level, they work as a fantastic double-bill.
Biberman’s movie is a thinly-veiled portrait of the events surrounding the 1951 strike at a mine in Bayard, a town in southwestern New Mexico (now a Superfund site). Thanks to a combination of its location (Bayard sits very close to the Mexican border) and stinginess, Empire had a tendency to hire a large number of Latino workers. This is, of course, not a terrible thing, and you would imagine that in today’s world the company would be crowing about its diversity. All well and good except that it got out that Empire were paying the Latino miners a fraction of what they were paying the gringos. This led to the Latino workers going on strike. The movie covers the lead-up to the strike more than the thing itself, though it does devote some time at the end to the actual strike. That was kind of a gutsy move in the fifties, and it works pretty well.
Looking back on the movie seventy years later, it can be hard to separate the meta from the actual movie. There is a great deal of meta surrounding this picture. Most of the principals in front of the camera were non-actors (and, unthinkable in Hollywood at the time, most of the actors playing Mexicans were actual Mexicans), while four of the principals behind the camera were blacklisted. (So was the movie itself, the only film in American history to actually be blacklisted; ironically, it is also the only American film that was released theatrically in China between 1950 and 1979. It would not be shown theatrically in America until the mid-sixties.) All of which makes it great on trivia night, but is it good for movie night? It’s not a bad little movie, to be sure, but I think the meta has caused it to be lionized maybe a little more than it should. The non-actors do a good job for non-actors, but Cidade de Deus this ain’t. Will Geer, as a local sheriff tasked with quelling the natives, brings a touch of professionalism to the proceedings, and male lead Juan Chacôn really does rise to the occasion, but the two of them often have the unintentional effect of highlighting the amateurs around them. That said, that we’re seventy years on also makes the film fit a little better. After all, we live in an age where any student filmmaker with a digital camcorder and a DVD-R burner can get a movie streaming on Netflix, so Salt of the Earth is a little more at home. Worth looking into if you’re interested in the subject. ***
The full movie on Youtube.