In 1953, director Herbert Biberman was making a feature film, "Salt of the Earth," about a strike in a small New Mexico mining community. Six years earlier, Biberman had been called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee investigating communism in the motion picture industry. Biberman had refused to cooperate with the Committee and he and nine other "unfriendly" witnesses were sent to prison for contempt of Congress.
While Biberman was on location in New Mexico, he got word that the Pathe labs in Hollywood would no longer process his film. One sound technician, a rock-ribbed Republican, offered the beleagured production the use of his facilities because he wasn't going to let "some big shot tell him what to do." But he was an exception.
The film had to be edited secretly, in the bathroom of a movie theater outside Los Angeles. Material for the release prints were sent out in small batches under a dummy title: "Vaya Con Dios," to avoid interference. Management of a warehouse in New York refused to store the finished prints, and union projectionists in Chicago, who continued to show Soviet films throughout the Cold War period, would not project this pro-union American film.
Washington viewers will have a chance to see "Salt of the Earth" on May 2 and 3 when it is shown as the opening film in a provocative series of dramatic movies on labor history, funded by the District of Columbia Humanities Council and sponsored by the innovative Magic Latern Cinema. Programs will be shown Friday and Saturday evenings from May 2 to June 14 at the Dance Exchange, 1443 Rhode Island Ave. NW. A speaker will accompany each film on Friday nights. Admission to the program is $2.50.
Elisa Sanchez, vice president for Special Projects of the National Council of La Raza, will introduce "Salt of the Earth" on May 2. Her mother played the part of strike captain Consuelo Ruiz in the film, and the 9-year-old Sanchez also walked the picket line and made sandwiches for strikers, when she wasn't in school.
The film tells the story of a Mexican-American community and its strike against mine owners for civil rights and safer working conditions. The actors are the actual workers themselves. Wives join the struggle to campaign for indoor plumbing in the company houses, when a Taft-Hartley injunction stops the men from picketing. While the men stay home and reluctantly tackle the household chores, the women face harrassment on the picket line and finally imprisonment before the mine owners give in and the men accept the women as equal partners.
This film shows the dramatic power that's possible when real people communicate their own history, and the radiant performance of the Mexican-American workers makes their case come alive. In contrast, the few professional actors who play the "heavies" (only blacklisted actors like Will Geer who had nothing to lose could risk appearing in the film) seem stagey and inauthentic, much as the actual bosses must have seemed to the workers in the real situation.
The fact that the striking miners were members of Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which had been expelled from the CIO for alleged Communist affiliations also worked against the film. Biberman found a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas, to play the leading role of Esperanza, the miner's wife who moves from passivity to militance. But political pressures on the immigration authorities in El Paso resulted in Revueltas being deported before the film was finished, and one of her final scenes had to use a stand-in, photographed from the back.
Members of the community were involved as collaborators in the screenplay as well as actors. In several instances, ideas that scriptwriter Michael Wilson had invented were vetoed. For instance, Ramon, Esperanza's husband, was not to have an affair with a young widow while his wife was on the picket line, for that would perpetrate a derogatory stereotype of the Latin lover; likewise, an incident when a supervisor insults a worker with a racist epithet was deleted.
As the production went on, newspaper articles and a speech by Congressman Donald Jackson, member of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, on the floor of the House intensified the opposition to the film. Jackson proclaimed that he would do everything in his power "to prevent the showing of this Communist-made film in the theaters of America." Earlier, the president of Biberman's company had been warned by Roy Brewer that the Hollywood Ten were "finished in the industry." Brewer was a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, and also the International Representative of the powerful (and then segregated) International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees which represented most of the Hollywood productions technicians.
As well as I.A.T.S.E., Congressman Jackson also enlisted the help of studio mogul Howard Hughes, then president of RKO, who promised that he would advise all members of the industry to refuse assistance to "Salt of the Earth."
At the production site, there were sporadic threats and isolated cases of vigilante action against the film. The home of one of the worker/actors was burned to the ground. Clinton Jencks, the Mind, Mill and Smelter Workers organizer who plays the same role in the film, had her car shot full of holes. Protective patrols by the New Mexico State Police and support from the local Catholic clergy were necessary to help the production continue until the film was finished. Biberman then persisted through eight years of litigation against the production companies and individuals who had tried to stop his film. He lost his case, but the film endures; and Biberman made one more film, "Slaves," before he died in 1971.
Appearing with Elisa Sanchez on May 2 will be Dolores Janiewski, assistant editor of the Samuel Papers, and an authority on the problems of women workers.
Washington film scholar Tony Gittens, director of the Black Film Institute, will speak on May 16 at the showing of Paul Schrader's "Blue Collar," which shows also on May 17. He will address the question of how American movies portray unionism, and how blacks view this differently than whites.
Leo Hurwitz, director of the radical film "Native Land," made in the 30s with photography by Paul Strand and songs and narration by Paul Robeson, will be here on June 6 to introduce his film; shown also on June 7.
"Roots of Blood," by Chicano filmmaker Jesus Trevino, won a top prize at the recent festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana. It will be shown on May 23 and 24, introduced on May 23 by Michael Maggio, an attorney specializing in legal problems of the foreign born.
Robert Young's brilliant "Alambrista," produced for the "Visions" series on PBS, will have its Washington theatrical premiere June 13 and 14, accompanied on Friday by a speaker from the National Lawyers Guild Immigration Project.
Sean Connery and Richard Harris star in Martin Ritt's "The Molly Maguires," to be shown May 9 and 10. Ritt, another blacklisted director, dealt most recently with the union movement in "Norma Rae." Speaking at the May 9 screening will be labor historian Philip Foner.
Dan Georgakas, New York author and film critic, will introduce Mario Monicelli's "The Organizer," starring Marcello Mastroianni, May 30. The film will be shown again on May 31.