Once-Banned `Salt of the Earth’ Begins Film Festival on Campus

Eric Adams

In celebration of 20 years of student activism, the Association of Latin American Students is presenting a film festival showcasing efforts of activists over the years. “Salt of the Earth” will be the first film in the series.

Though made almost 50 years ago, “Salt” feels as contemporary as any film today. It deals with issues of equality and injustice that are just as relevant as our modern social problems.

The film follows the story of the Mine, Mill and Smelters Union in New Mexico as it strives to gain better rights and working conditions. Conditions in the zinc mine are dangerous and management abuses the minority Mexican-American workers by not providing simple safeguards. Though negotiations for safer conditions were begun, the Union realizes the company is merely stalling.

In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, a miner is injured. The women of the town rush to the mine as the accident alarms blare. The miners have gathered outside the mine to see what has happened. When the injured man is taken away, the company bosses dismissively order the men back to work. This flippancy pushes the miners too far and a strike begins.

Ramon Quintero is one of the leaders of the Union. He is played by Juan Chac¢n, one of the actual members of the Union the story is based upon. Many of the actors and crew of the movie were members of this same miners’ union. Chac¢n plays the part with zeal, and the passion for his ideas comes across as extremely convincing.

One of the few professional actors in the movie played Quintero’s wife, Esperanza. Rosaura Revueltas was already famous in her native Mexico for such movies as “Sombrero” and “Islas Mar°as.” Revueltas carries the movie outright. In the beginning, she is the obedient, demurring housewife to Quintero, but eventually finds empowerment.

She helps lead an empowerment of labor, of women, and of Mexican-Americans. Her power eventually leads to the Union winning the strike and the oppressed winning their dignity.

Because it advocated equality for minorities through unionization, the film was branded as a communist work. The director, Herbert J. Biberman, had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era, but decided not to let that deter him. He had made such films as “New Orleans,” with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and “The Master Race.”

Michael Wilson, the writer, was also a member of the Hollywood Ten which included Biberman and other suspected communists. Each of the Hollywood Ten was banned from working in the industry and they were effectively silenced (for the most part) for many years. Wilson was eventually credited in 1995 for writing “Lawrence of Arabia” and posthumously won an Oscar for his work on “Bridge on the River Kwai.”

The film itself is powerful, but when the almost insurmountable circumstances of its production are known, it becomes a masterwork.

“Salt of the Earth” is merely the first of eight films to be shown during the Association of Latin American Students’ Film Festival. Films will be shown Wednesdays at 7 p.m. through May 2 in the J. Walter Smith Student Center. Consult our calendar for more details or call extension 5470.