Box-Office Alternatives: Salt of the Earth

in

Wim Wenders' captivating documentary The Salt of the Earth (2014) opens Friday in Austin after numerous festival screenings and heaps of critical praise. The Oscar-nominated documentary film follows famed photographer Sebastiao Selgado as he embarks on one of the most ambitious projects of his 40-year career in an effort to capture the planet's true essence and beauty.

I've no doubt that Wenders' Salt of the Earth is the wonderful piece of filmmaking others have claimed it to be. Yet when I hear the phrase "salt of the earth," my mind can't help but think of the stirring 1954 independent drama of the same name as well as the important social significance it conveyed and the controversy that surrounded the movie.

Set within a New Mexico mining town, Salt of the Earth (1954) centers on husband and wife Ramon (Juan Chacon) and Esperanza (Rosaura Ruevueltas), a happily married couple expecting their third child. Ramon's grandfather once owned the land where the family lives. However, by the 1950s, ownership has reverted to the white man and Ramon now spends his life as an employee of the local mine. When poor working conditions force Ramon and his fellow miners to go on strike, their actions trigger a chain of events that may forever change the lives of Ramon, Esperanza and the whole community.

Naturally, Salt of the Earth was quite an ambitious project for any filmmaker to tackle. Writer Michael Wilson and director Herbert J. Biberman were already blacklisted by Hollywood for having Communist ideals by the time Salt of the Earth was conceived. Biberman was even reported as saying that he took on the project because he felt that he might as well direct a film on what he was being accused of. As a result, the production became a sort of refuge for some who were persecuted during the Hollywood witch hunt of the 1950s, with many of the film's crew members having been unable to find work after being blacklisted.

The production itself was a rocky one with protests sparking multiple location changes and continued threats from local officials, who felt Salt of the Earth was nothing but left-wing Communist propaganda.

Salt of the Earth does indeed emphasize the power of labor unions in a way no other film does by beautifully showing true, unwavering strength amongst Ramon and the other miners. Their acts of protest and refusal to act out in violence convey an altogether different image of a union.

In addition, through the relationship between Ramon and Esperanza, Salt of the Earth paints a portrait of Mexican-American life free of most stereotypes of the time. They're shown as smart, thoughtful individuals with great strength and conviction. Their quarrels and conflicts echo those of many married couples, while their reactions to the strike bear both a sharp intelligence and an unshakeable dignity.

Midway through the proceedings, Salt of the Earth ends up becoming a highly feminist commentary. After Ramon and the other miners are forbidden by law to strike, Esperanza and the rest of the miner's wives decide that they will strike if their husbands can't. The women endure daily threats from the law including tear gas as they picket the mine; carrying on the fight when their husbands can do little else but stay at home and take care of the children. Led in part by Esperanza, it's fascinating to watch her shift from an everyday Mexican housewife to a woman who asserts herself as her husband's equal partner, wanting to share in both his struggles and his love.

Suffice it to say, Salt of the Earth was met with great resistance upon release. While the movie was heralded in Europe as a brilliant piece of filmmaking, it became blacklisted in America while its leading lady was actually deported to Mexico. As politics changed over time, however, Salt of the Earth was allowed to be rediscovered for the first time by the film world and the once-shunned film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Today, it exists as one of the most important and bravest films ever made about social struggles and the power and strength it took to overcome them.

Where to watch Salt of the Earth is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.