By Jim Smith
A lot of people in Venice know that Edward Biberman was the artist who painted the Post Office mural, The Story of Venice.
But few probably know that his older brother, Herbert, directed Salt of the Earth, a classic film about a New Mexico miners strike that ended 60 years ago. That film, shot and edited amid government harassment and vigilante violence, is now credited by the Library of Congress as being one of the greatest films ever made, and among the first – perhaps the first – feminist film. The film is told from the viewpoint of Esperanza Quintero, the wife of a striking miner.
Salt of the Earth recreates the miners’ struggle, and strike, for a new labor contract at the Empire Zinc Mine, near Hanover, in southern New Mexico in 1950-52. The film was completed two years later.
The Latino miners nearly lost the strike when the company brought in strike breakers and won an injunction against picketing. It was at this point that the wives of the strikers, who were not covered by the injunction, picked up the picket signs and marched.
Even though they were routinely jailed, the women walked the picket line for seven months and saved the strike. This was a bold move in tradition-bound, male supremacist, rural New Mexico at mid-century. It’s the way that the issues of class and racism are portrayed during the day-to-day progress of the strike by a group of very poor miners, and how they are forced to confront their own sexism, that makes this a great film.
The 1950s had much in common with today’s war on terror. Back then, the House “UnAmerican Activities” Committee, Senator Joe McCarthy and their ilk, were busy destroying the optimistic and inclusive Roosevelt era, and replacing it with an anti-communist witch hunt that terrified millions of liberal Americans. You didn’t have to be a communist to fall under suspicion and possibly lose your job or your career. You were called a “Red” if you didn’t want to rat on your friends.
In Hollywood, and in the union movement and most companies and organizations, it was easy to get rid of a rival by planting the seed that he was a communist. Today most people could care less if someone is a communist, socialist, libertarian or anarchist, but 60 years ago it was a different story. The hysteria against communists, liberals and New Dealers permeated the social fabric of the nation. In some ways it laid the basis for the current “war on terrorism,” which casts suspicion on Arabs, Iranians and followers of Islam.
And so it was that well-respected Hollywood Director, Herbert Biberman, and nine other prominent film artists, became known as the Hollywood Ten and were held in contempt of Congress for failure to confess their beliefs and affiliations or to rat on their friends.
Herbert Biberman was sentenced to six months in a federal penitentiary. Fortunately, Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 was not in force back then. It allows the indefinite incarceration of a U.S. citizen without trial. While six months in the pen would have been enough to frighten most people, but the Biberman brothers were made of stronger stuff. Herbert immediately began work on Salt of the Earth.
The film shooting encountered immediate harassment. How could a film about workers struggling for their rights, that was about fighting sexism and racism, and was being created by members of the Hollywood Ten be anything but Red propaganda? In fact, it wasn’t. The film never mentions communism, socialism or the Soviet Union. Its themes of equality and justice are subscribed to by most people today.
Nevertheless, the production had trouble attracting fearful Hollywood actors (Will Geer, who plays the sheriff, was a notable exception). Biberman was unable to view “rushes,” since the film companies refused to process the daily output. The leading lady was deported to Mexico in the midst of filming. And carloads of vigilantes invaded the set and beat up actors and film production workers.
Originally, Biberman was going to cast his wife, actress Gale Sondergaard, and a white actor in leading roles. But others, including his sister-in-law, Sonja Dahl Biberman (Edward’s wife), convinced him to cast Latinos in the leading roles. He ended up with Juan Chacon, the union’s local president and a strike leader, playing himself, and Rosaura Revueltas, a star of the cinema in Mexico, as his wife.
The editing process was as harrowing as the filming. The raw footage had to be hidden away with editing taking place at night in a variety of locations, including Topanga Canyon. As the weeks went by, Biberman and the film editors stayed one step ahead of the FBI, which desperately wanted to censor the movie by confiscating the film.
In the end, the film was censored by pressuring theater owners to refuse to show it. It enjoyed a nine week run in New York and a few days at ten other theaters around the country.
It was technology that finally beat the censorship. First VHS (yes, that’s technology), then DVDs, YouTube and finally Netflix, which will stream it to your computer, iPad or TV without requiring you to sign a loyalty oath.
Does this mean that if Salt of the Earth was made today, it would be readily available? Perhaps not. A British-Spanish film made in 2000, entitled One of the Hollywood Ten, about Herbert Biberman and the making of Salt of the Earth, starring Jeff Goldblum and Greta Scacchi, is unavailable for viewing in the United States. It’s not on DVD, it’s not anywhere on the internet. A European DVD is for sale on the web, but it is not compatible with U.S. video players. Wikipedia calls it “A curious state of affairs given the subject.”
I was fortunate enough to have known three of the people involved in the strike and/or the film. Bob Hollowwa was one of the top union organizers during the 1940s and early 50s. At the time of the strike he was the regional director of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which represented the strikers. Unfortunately, the national union did not want the workers to strike, believing they could not win in such repressive times. Hollowwa sided with the workers who believed they could win.
According to historians, Hollowwa did more than anyone else to convince the women to take an active and equal role in the struggle. For his efforts, he was fired from his job with the union. He was also written out of the film, either by pressure from the union, which helped fund the film, or simply because it would have made a confusing story to show the union doing something bad.
I met Hollowwa 20 years later. At the time I was pursuing a PhD in Economics, but I told him I’d rather be a union organizer. He started coming to my house at least once a week, where he attempted to teach me about strategy and tactics. It must have been a frustrating experience for him, since I kept missing the point and asking stupid questions. I felt like Carlos Castenada sitting at the feet of this shaman of worker struggles, and only half getting it.
In the end, Hollowwa taught me many useful lessons which I put to use during the next 25 years of my involvement in the labor movement. But I believe the most important thing I learned was to stand up for one’s principles regardless of the consequences. He never had any doubt that he had done the right thing by siding with the workers against the union brass, and thereby getting fired and failing to be immortalized in the film.
Then there were Lorenzo and Anita Torrez. Lorenzo Torrez was a miner and one of the strikers. He’s in the film as well. His big scene is jumping up at a union meeting and making a motion. Had it not been for the film, he might have lived out his life as a miner. Instead, he was inspired by the experience of the strike and the film.
When I met him in Los Angeles in the 1970s, he had become a political activist and teacher of labor topics who frequently lectured around town. He taught from the point of view of Chicano workers who are always confronted with racism and economic repression.
Many of us who are white have a tendency to belittle the impact of racism on people of color. Torrez was able to explain to me the insidious nature of racism and how it is used to maintain this unequal social order. His wife, Anita, who has been fighting for women’s rights ever since she joined the picket line at the strike, added the explanation of sexism to the mix. It is triple oppression for women of color, she emphasized. “We are oppressed as workers, Chicanas and women.”
I’ve been thinking about Lorenzo a lot lately. He died New Year’s Day at age 84 in Tucson, Arizona, where he had founded the Salt of the Earth Labor College. He was fighting Arizona’s assault on immigrants and bilingual education to the end. He was, indeed, the Salt of the Earth.
A new DVD of Salt of the Earth may be obtained from Organa.com.