Salt of the Earth (1954): Social Realist Film from Blacklisted Artists, Michael Wilson, Paul Jarrico, and Herbert Biberman

One of the most daring social problem films, “Salt of the Earth” is based on a real-life labor strike, using the miners as actors. It’s an example of a rare American film, one that explicitly propagates socialist realist cinema. The movie was a failure at the time, but in later years, it became a favorite on college campuses.

Made outside the studio system by the blacklisted Michael Wilson, producer Paul Jarrico, and director Herbert Biberman, the film gave its creators more freedom in their radical interpretations of racial oppression.

The movie exposes the shabby working and living conditions of the Mexican-American community. It provides some historical background on how the Chicanos rights were violated by white industrialists. The community once owned the land, but the Zinc Company moved in, took over the property and offered them the “choice” of moving or accepting employment at low wage.

They are forced to live in management-owned houses and buy at management-owned stores. The houses are shacks with poor sanitation and bad plumbing. The stores sell goods at inflated prices, which put the workers in debt.

Safety regulations for Chicano miners are lax, especially when compared to those in mines dominated by white workers. While white miners are allowed to work in pairs, the Chicanos must perform dangerous chores individually. When the Chicano workers protest, the company’s managers threaten to replace them. Who A scab charges a Chicano. No, an American, retorts the manager.

The police conspire with the mine owners to defeat a strike, disrupting the picket line and arresting one of the spokesmen. Snarling racial epithets, two deputies viciously assault Ramon (Juan Chacon) and then charge him with resisting arrest. As the strike continues, the police evict the miners from homes, carelessly damaging their possessions.

The films portrait of Chicanos doesnt conform to the conventional Hollywood stereotype of the noble victims, who seek to gain acceptance from the white man. In “Salt of the Earth,” the strikers are proud and militant.

However, in trying to offset Hollywood clichs and realize its socialist platform of promoting working class and oppressed minorities, the picture relies on political slogans. This installment plan is the curse of the working man, says one in what’s a romanticized image of the proletariat.

If the workers are defined as classic heroes, righteous and strong, the oppressors come across as classic villains, vicious and weak. The sheriff and his deputies, the mine foreman, and company representatives are caricatured as capitalist buddies whose ruthless hatred is motivated by evil.

“Salt of the Earth” idealizes the question of Chicano-White relationship, making the poor indivisible and omnipotent. The film conforms to a rigid good/evil formula and its rousing finale, like a Hollywood “happy ending,” is amplified from the specific strike to universal connotations of the meek inheriting the Earth. Ultimately, socialist realism is not substantially different from Hollywood wish fulfillment.

Nonetheless, for the first time in an American film history, a strike is depicted exclusively from the militant workers point of view. The film provides semi-documentary details on the specifics of the strike. The Chicanos have legitimate complaints about their working conditions, demanding the same safety regulations and pay as their white miners counterparts.

After negotiations fail and a miner is injured, the men walk out, and the rest of the picture shows how they organize and implement their strike: They hold union meetings where issues are democratically discussed and voted upon. They form picket lines and fight to keep scabs out. They solicit support from outside by printing and distributing leaflets. When food supplies dwindle, they pool their resources and help each others families.

They are not dupes under the sway of agitators, but rational, and intelligent, and engaged in battle for human betterment. They must make difficult moral decisions before taking political action. Though stickers are from the outset certain of their cause, the men still have an important lesson to learn

One of the film’s most interesting aspects is its portrayal of the striker’s wives. (See Film Comment). The workers must accept their wives demands for equality, in the same spirit that they require equality from the mine owners. At first the men condescendingly dismiss the womens complaints about unsanitary conditions, claiming, Leave it to the men.

But when the Taft-Hartly injunction prohibits the men from picketing, the women form the picket line so that the strike can continue. The women assume new, important roles, and as the men are left with the womens work, the husbands realize that their mates demands are as valid as their own.

When the sheriff and deputy start evicting one family, they are confronted by the entire community. The law can do nothing, because the workers outnumber them by mass organization, and management must concede defeat.

There’s no ambiguity in the picture. The system is presented as a power structure defined by bad guys versus good ones. The management representative George Hartwell is a stereotypical capitalist impeccably dressed in a gabardine suit and Panama hat, viewing the strike from his Cadillac. Like Hartwell, the sheriff, the foreman, and the company president are cardboard villains.


Esperanza Quintero (Rosaura Revueltas)
Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacon)
Sheriff (Will Geer)
Barton (David Wolfe)
Hartwell (Melvin Williams)
Alexander (David Sarvis)
Teresa Vidal (Henrietta Williams)
Charley Vidal (Erenest Velasquez)
Consuelo Ruiz (Angela Sanchez)
Sal Ruiz (Joe T. Morales)


Producers: Paul Jarrico, Sonja Dahl Biberman, Adolfo Barela
Director: Herbert Biberman
Script: Michael Wilson, Michael Biberman
Cinematography: Leonard Stark, Stanley Meredith
Editor: Ed Spiegel, Joan Laird
Music: Sol Kaplan
Production Design: Sonja Dahl Biberman, Adolfo Barela

My analysis draws on Roffman and Purdy’s book.