Salt of the Earth (Herbert J Biberman, USA, 1954)

Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth is the story of a miners strike that takes place in “Zinc Town”, New Mexico. The production method is similar to that of Amma Ariyan in the sense that is was made by a collective: the “international union of mine and smelter workers” and “the free Americans, who inspired this film and played most of its roles” (more on Amma Ariyan here: amma-ariyanmessage-to-my-mother-john-abraham-india-1986). After its release the directors were blacklisted and kicked out of Hollywood as part of the McCarthy witch hunts.

The most important thing about this film is the reflection of the production method in the content. The film shows the consequence of breaking down the divisions of labour that are crucial for Capitalism and the alienation of the individual. It is temporally oriented toward the dialectical nature of history as that of individuals struggling against oppression, showing how it is within this struggle that we develop through the dispelling of more intrinsic prejudices.

The relationship toward the established cultural paradigm is shown in the opening credits. We see Esperanza doing household chores. The music could be taken from the traditional Western genre, and might normally accompany John Wayne and his horse galloping along the frontier. This particular fantasy, which is held in place by the system of genre, is dismissed form the beginning. What we see in it’s place is a subversion of the traditional ‘hero’: from the horse-riding cowboy to the mother doing household chores.

The dominance of Capitalist culture is foregrounded in the name of the town, which we learn has been changed from San Marcos to “Zinc Town”, with the initials “U.S.A” empahasised in the narration. The aim of this geographical positing is to show how Capitalism holds the profit incentivised extraction of minerals from the land as such a priority that it re-names the town, with the added intent of stripping the cultural identity of those who live there. The emphasis on “U.S.A” is an allusion to the fact that the U.S.A is a colonised country, and that the people who lived there before and during colonisation are in a continuous transition from their traditional mode of existence to one imposed on them by the Capitalist coloniser.

As the film progresses we see how the cultural and economic dominance of Capital imposes itself in a linear, top-down fashion that is not unlike the linear production model of 1930’s Hollywood (more on this here: hollywood-studio-system-golden.php). Zinc Town is a place where all the land is “company property”, including the mines, the food stores, the hospital and the houses. This makes it more difficult for the workers to go on strike because it means the company can revoke the vital services on which it has a monopoly.

Control over the forces of production allows the company to define the relations of production. As cultural hegemony thickens, the dominant, top-down mode of production is reflected in the familial microcosm. In other words, there is a direct relation between ownership over the forces of production and the cultural hegemony created through defining the relations of production. This act of defining includes the assignment of gender roles and the structuring of the family.

The first example of how top-down control imposes itself at a lower level can be seen in the dialogue between Esperanza and her husband, Ramon. An argument over making payments on the radio they have purchased on credit (saddling them with debt, a familiar experience for anyone alive today) becomes one about the different requirements of husband and wife in their day-to-day lives. Ramon is concerned with the safety of the mine workers, and wants to go on strike. Esperanza is against this, because she knows the family will be cut off from the company sore.

The erosion of empathy that arises from the division of labour makes it more difficult for husband and wife to see each other’s point of view.  Ramon’s argument is similar to that used by figures in power when relativising misery, which is usually done for the sake of implementing neo-liberal policy: “Have you forgotten what it was like before the union came”? This line is a justification for a prejudice Ramon is aware of when it comes to that between white and Mexican mine workers: the one thing that the bosses have over the “anglos”, he says, is “at least they get more than the Mexicans”. We can see how Ramon is fully aware of the prejudice meted upon him while being oblivious to the transmission of prejudice downwards upon his wife. The top-down control over the forces of production intravenously reproduces itself in the relations of production.

The film shows how empathy is eroded as a result of the divisions of labour, and how this process can be transcended through removing these divisions. The transcendence of gender roles and cultural hegemony as dictated from above is gradually achieved through dialogue among male and female workers. In one sequence an organiser from the International fails to recognise the figure in a picture of Juarez, “father of Mexico”. It is pointed out that if Ramon ever failed to recognise an image of George Washington he would be labeled as stupid. The sequence is an example of how cultural hegemony can be subverted through discussion and interaction with an Other. It is this Other that hegemony seeks to bar us from, and we can see this occurring today as Capitalism continues to attack the working class through the closure of social and cultural spaces (a closed down pub, for example, is now a common sight in England).

These spaces are re-opened in the act of going on strike, during which the negotiation of obstacles set in place by hegemony takes place. The strike changes the mode of time experienced by the characters in the film. At it’s beginning we see shots of machines slowing to a halt, cogs ceasing to spin, workers standing still in a revocation of their labour. These shots are a signal that the temporal structure of ‘working life’ is changing. This change is one in which the way time is spent (from working, to striking) and consequently perceived. While the temporal structure of the film remains the same, we see how the strike as a temporal shift re-opens the space in which hegemony is dealt with through conflict and negotiation.

This notion of a temporal shift corresponds with the three spaces of time set out by Esperanza’s narration, which are, roughly: A) the past in which the film is set as signified by B) the present tense implied by the narration’s reference to the past, and finally C) the actual present of the audience, and their relating to Esperanza’s ‘present’ reference to the past we see on screen. This temporal procession from the audience’s present, through the ‘present’ narration on the past is what allows the film to turn the cinema into the kind of social space it advocates by way of depicting a strike. In other words, the film attempts to create historical dialogue through representation of historical dialogue.

While remaining within the confines of a Classical Hollywood linear narrative structure, Salt of the Earth uses this structure for more than just the dictation of a closed beginning, middle and end. Instead it consciously makes use of it to show the perpetual nature of the dialectical thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The continuous emergence of consciousness takes place within the strike, and is, in this film, at it’s cutting edge in the women’s struggle, since it is the working women who exist at the bottom, that is, furthest away from the initial point at which top-down control over the forces of production is exerted. Salt of the Earth deliberately uses the issue of a miners strike to flesh out the deeper prejudices of patriarchal ideology, beginning with a dialectical opposition between workers and bosses and explicating the faults within the workers movement in relation that original conflict. In this way the film becomes educational.

In an early sequence some of the women meet in a garden. During the dialogue one of them suggests “we ought to form a woodchoppers union” since they spend a lot of their time at home chopping wood for the fire. Later, it is the women who take over the strike action, since the company has banned mine workers from striking. In the latter case we see how the requirements of survival and necessity precipitate political action and the emergence of consciousness.

By positioning the women’s struggle in relation to the miners strike, the miners strike becomes the women’s strike, with the men having to take up the household roles previously carried out by the women. This works toward the breaking down the division of labour, a process which is reflected in the production method of the film. Finally the film provides a space in which we begin to question the structure of the family and the roles of it’s members.

The closest thing to Salt of the Earth that I can find in documentary format is the amazing Harlan County USA. See the trailer here: [youtube=]

You can watch Salt of the Earth in its entirety here:[youtube=]

Author: Anthony Killick

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