venge against their persecutors they chose a project that Jarrico called “unequivocally prolabor, prominority, and prowomen.” “We wanted to commit a crime to fit the punishment,” he explained in a 1983 interview. It is no crime to create wooden dialogue or to put it into the mouths of sentimental figures who are tools of a tendentious script. While Salt of the Earth is not dogmatic agit-prop, it lacks the power of Vittorio de Sica’s 1949 Bicycle Thief to evoke genuine empathy for the wretched of the earth. Jarrico was convinced that “this is a story that’s got everything. It’s got labor’s rights, women’s rights, minority rights, all in a dynamic package.” But the dynamics did not move the pre-New Yorker Pauline Kael writing in Sight and Sound in 1954, who dismissed the movie as “a proletarian morality play,” one that “seems so ridiculously and patently false that it requires something like determination to consider that those who make it believe in it.” A half century later, James J. Lorence, a professor of history at the University of WisconsinMarathon County, offers no evidence of anything but quixotic dedication in a cast and crew who sacrificed their incomes and even their careers to a project they ardently believed in. He insists that Salt of the Earth “stands as a revealing celluloid document, a record that chronicles a determined effort by socially committed men and women to question the accepted gender and racial relations of their time and to build better lives for themselves and their families through the medium of socially conscious unionism.” i n The Suppression of Salt of the Earth, Lorence follows the absorbing 1982 documentary A Crime to Fit the Punishment \(di retracing the film’s conception, production, and reception. A product of extensive original research, the book establishes the Cold War context in which leftist renegades tried to make a movie. Redbaiting sabotaged the project, but so, too, during the sedated age of Eisenhower, did fear of redbaiting. Lorence demonstrates that Salt of the Earth fell victim not only to a rightwing backlash against the labor movement but also to internecine squabbles within the movement itself. For Roy Brewer, eager to consolidate his power as leader of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, opposition to Salt of the Earth was a way to burnish his credentials as a staunch anti-Commu nist. The I.A.T.S.E.’s refusal to allow projectionists to screen the movie was as damaging as studio moguls’ threats to withhold their products from any theater that dared show it. Salt of the Earth, in which most of the major characters \(like 90 percent of the Empire Zinc of Latino cinema. All the dark-skinned miners are indiscriminately called “Pancho” by their discriminatory A’nglo boss. But, during a union meeting, when some of the workers speak in Spanish, rather than croon in English like the Cisco Kid, it is assumed that the viewer is either fluent or empathetic enough to need no translation. Nor is the mafianita celebrated for one of the characters transposed into a birthday party. The events are set in a place called Zinctown, but we are told that, before the Anglo corporation took control, it was named San Marcos, and that this lucrative land once belonged to the families of the dispossessed miners. Two years after vibrant Katy Jurado lost her man to Quaker schoolmarm Grace Kelly in High Noon, Biberman, Jarrico, and Wilson were portraying Latinas as more than just the carnal Other Woman. The fact that Salt of the Earth is a woman’s story is even more striking than that its heroes are Mexican-American. Voiceover narration at beginning and end establishes that it is thirty-fiveresponsible for our take on the Zinctown strike tiate. In the movie’s opening shot, a pregnant Esperanza is washing her family’s laundry, without hot or running water. It is only when the striking Zinctown men are forced to take on “women’s work” that the union makes an issue, along with wages and working conditions, of the meager domestic arrangements provided by the company. “I wished that my child would never be born,” declares Esperanza, weary of being exploited by her husband as blatantly as he is exploited by the mine bosses. “You never think of me,” she chides Ram6n, who prefers to be out drinking with his buddies instead of tending to his family. When Esperanza and the other wives try to participate in union actions, Ramon admonishes her: “You’re a woman. You don’t know what it’s like up there.” Parallel to the conflict between the miners and the bosses is a struggle between the miners and their wives. And the New Mexican war between the sexes employs weapons from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; in retaliation against his paternalistic tyranny, Esperanza refuses to sleep with Ramon. Ultimately, when a Taft-Hartley injunction prohibits the striking men from picketing the mine, their women take over. Singing “Solidarity Forever,” these oppressed Chicanas triumph over the plutocrats of zinc. Like Zola’s novel Germinal, as well as films such as Kameradschaft, How Green Was My Valley, Harlan County, U.S.A., and Matewan, Salt of the Earth focuses on miners as the prototype of aroused, oppressed employees. Esperanza’s final words augur a brighter day, when “They, the salt of the earth, would inherit it.”These days, when studios have been reduced to financing centers, Biberman’s legacy has been inherited by hundreds of independent filmmakers. If Salt of the Earth were made today, perhaps for even less than $250,000, it would be shown at Sundance and advertised even distributed on the Internet. Abairbed into the insular culture of cinema, it might still not ease the woes of the laborers it depicts. Or it might be produced by Disney or Paramount; instead of Local 890, consumer focus groups would vet the script. Cast as Esperanza, Julia Roberts would abjure her passion for the Anglo union organizer, Robert Redford, to stand by her man, Antonio Banderas. In our more open society, Salt would lose its savor. Steven G. Kellman is Ashbel Smith Professor of Comparative Literature at U.T.San Antonio, author of “The Translingual Imagination,” forthcoming in June from the University of Nebraska Press,’ and film columnist for the San Antonio Current. MAY 26, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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