Salt of the Earth: Female Working Class Perspective

One of the most daring social problem films of the 1950s, 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 that propagates socialist realist cinema.

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 film’s leftist perspective was an anomaly in the 1950s, and the focus on female consciousness, as conditioned by both social class and gender conflicts, also made the film unique. As wives and mothers, the women are taken for granted. But the film challenges male pride and machismo; helpless with domestic chores, they are struggling with the laundry.

“Salt of the Earth,” as the scholar Annette Kuhn noted, constructs womens struggle as a central point of identification, suggesting that the positive protagonist of social revolution could be a woman, that its possible for her gender to be significant in narrative terms.

Protagonist is Esperanza Quintero, a Mexican-American mother whose miner husband becomes involved in a strike. The story depicts the increasing involvement of the miners wives in the strike, their support of their husbands. The womens involvement culminates in their taking over from men on the picket line, after union has been served with a Taft-Hartley injunction

There are reprisals by the employers against Esperanza’s husband Ramon and against women on the line. The attempt to evict the Quinteros are dealt with by Anglo and Mexican-American women and men of the New Mexico community

Esperanzas voice over opens and closes the film and punctuates it at various points. Hence, the story is told from womans narrative point-of-view. Esperanzas discourse makes explicit the relationship between the particular struggle and the broader historical process; broader struggles transcend this particular story

The women’s awakening political consciousness is crucial in the story, and the fact that they are ethnic minority wives and mothers makes it all the more significant. Ramon’s reaction to Esperanza’s increased activity in strike, which takes her more and more outside the domestic sphere, goes from ambivalence to outright disapproval.

Esperanza tries to make Ramon understand the womans position by likening the racism of Ramon’s Anglo bosses within his male supremacy at home. In a crucial argument, Esperanza says, Do you feel better having someone lower than you Whose neck shall I stand on, to make me feel superior I dont want anything lower than I am. Im low enough already. I want to rise, and push everything up with me as I go.

In the next scene, Ramon goes hunting to escape from the strike troubles and perhaps domestic ones, too. Gradually, however,
He begins to understand Esperanza and to attain a different level of consciousness.

The bosses attempt to evict Quinteros, leading to the communitys solidarity and collective action in preventing the eviction. This collective act combines rejection of sexism and racism.

The ending presents a resolution of various enigmas set in the narrative. Not only the strike itself, but the problems of sexism and racism within community, which are brought into the open by strike and relationship between central characters.

It’s rare in the context of the 1950s to see women and their position in relation to the history signified by a film. The heroine of this movie stands in for all women in a particular situation, women as historical subjects

In her analysis, Annette Kuhn points out some similarities and differences between socialist realism and Hollywoods new women cinema, as manifest in “Salt of the Earth” and “Norma Rae” (1979), for which Sally Field won the Best Actress Oscar.

The two films share similar theme, industrial action in poor American communities, and in both, women are the central characters. But the narratives and characterizations are different. Norma Raes success in unionizing southern textile factory is explained in individualistic termsher personality traits of stubbornness, defiance, nonconformity (which pre-exist the struggle over unionism).

Unlike classic Hollywood cinema, there’s no romantic love between the two, and the friendship becomes the sit for Norma’s growing political awareness. Normas relation with her husband is hardly dealt with; he is loyal to her. Rather unusually for a mainstream movie, the key relationship in the movie is between Norma and the labor union organizer who visits her town.

“Norma Rae” is a Hollywood film, albeit one with institutional and textual modifications. Though it centers on a strong woman who is working class and also victorious in class-related struggle, the struggles characterizations are defined by individualization.