Georges Méliès, The Doctor and the Monkey, 1900
On March 14, 1954, the great labor film Salt of the Earth, a fictionalized version of a 1950 Mine, Mill strike in the zinc mines of southwestern New Mexico, premiered despite being lambasted as a communist plot, subjected to police harassment, and having one of its leads deported to Mexico.
On October 17, 1950, miners in Grant County, New Mexico went on strike against the Empire Zinc Company. These workers were led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or Mine, Mill for short. Mine, Mill was a communist-led union, a left-leaning alternative to the United Mineworkers of America. It was the direct descendant of the Western Federation of Miners, the radical mine workers in western mines that played a key role in founding the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Mine, Mill joined the CIO, but was kicked out with the rest of the communist unions in 1950. Mine, Mill had supported the Wallace campaign in 1948, opposed the Marshall Plan, and defied the odious Taft-Hartley Act’s anti-communist provisions (although in 1949, it caved on this).
The workers had several complaints that led to the strike. They wanted their time traveling to and from the mines paid (a common point of friction in the mining industry). They wanted more paid holidays. Mostly, they fought against institutionalized racism. Jobs were classified to give the higher paying jobs to whites and the lower paying jobs to the majority Mexican-American workforce. The strikers were united in their demands to end this racist system. After 8 months of picketing, Empire Zinc won an injunction against the strikers, thanks to provisions of Taft-Hartley. Mine, Mill had few funds without CIO support and could not pay fines for violating the injunction. But the local’s ladies auxiliary proposed that they picket instead. Although this offended the gender norms of many workers, it was the only avenue they had to continue the strike. So they did.
For the next 7 months, women were the strikers, despite police harassment and arrest. The women were pretty intense. They dragged strikebreakers out of their cars, threw rocks at them, and even used knitting needles, rotten eggs, and chiles as weapons. They brought a new militancy to the front lines of this strike. The men were more than a bit flummoxed as gender roles were reversed and they had to stay at home and take care of children and feed the family while their wives took on the more traditional male roles, not to mention one fraught with real physical danger. Most of the men really did not like this at all.
Yet the tactic worked. Empire Zinc caved somewhat in January 1952. Mine, Mill certainly did not win everything, but they did receive a major pay raise disproportionately favoring the lowest paid workers which effectively undermined the racialized pay norms, even if it didn’t overturn them. The company also installed indoor plumbing in the company houses of the Mexican-American workers, a sign of how women’s influence in the strike affected the outcome and shaped the demands.
The strike received national attention from the left and after the victory, leftist filmmakers worked with Mine, Mill to shoot a feature film based upon it. It is a sort of last gasp of leftist filmmaking in the Cold War, combining a union evicted from its federation for communism and blacklisted film people. Herbert Biberman directed. He was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to play along with HUAC’s bumbling facade of an investigation against communists in Hollywood. Clinton Jencks, a leftist Mine, Mill organizer who only subjected to the Taft-Hartley anticommunist provisions at the last second (and in fact was later charged with perjury for signing the anti-communist card) plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself. Will Geer, also on the blacklist, plays the sheriff. Juan Chacon, president of Mine, Mill Local 890 is the main miner and his wife is played by Rosaura Revueltas, a professional actor from Mexico. The minor roles are played by locals, mostly the miners and their wives. The film itself is a landmark in a number of ways, not only for its sheer existence in the face of such virulent redbaiting and intimidation, but its promotion of women’s rights, indictment of machismo, feature of Mexican-Americans as protagonists, and focus on the viciousness of the employers and police. Even in the heyday of left-leaning film in the 1930s, this would have been controversial. The production was harassed by police. Revuletas was arrested and deported back to Mexico toward the end of the shoot. Vigilantes fired shots at the set.
The film caused a national outrage by redbaiters. It was officially condemned in the House of Representatives. During its production, in February 1953, Donald Jackson (R-CA) lambasted it in Congress, saying, “This picture is deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples. If this picture is shown in Latin America, Asia, and India, it will do incalculable harm not only to the United States but to the cause of free people everywhere. “In effect, this picture is a new weapon for Russia.”
On March 14, 1954, the film debuted in New York. My old friends at the American Legion, a group always ready to raid an IWW hall or work as strikebreakers, called for a national boycott. Pauline Kael, reviewing it for Sight and Sound wrote it was “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.” That’s absurd. What the film does is present the dignity of people fighting for a better life, fighting against racism, classism, and sexism. If fighting for labor right and opposing racism is communist, sign me up. If anything, the film played down communism. The workers themselves were constantly accused of communism, but the subject never comes up in the film, either as a political position or an epithet. Only 13 movie theaters in the country showed it and it was forgotten for a decade.
The long-term effects of the strike on gender relations among the New Mexico miners is complex. Some couples returned to their previous ways of doing things. Others saw their relationship change. The wife of one high local official, who had been abused by her husband, walked out and moved to Los Angeles. A few years later, he went to L.A. to convince her to return. When she refused, he shot and killed her. At his trial, he claimed he was protecting his children from communism.
The film is also in the public domain. So watch it right now.
For more on the background of the strike and the making and controversy around the film, see James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth.
This is the 98th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
The U.S. military’s use of film during World War II was remarkable. The bravery of the cameramen, risking and often losing their lives, in taking this footage is amazing. Of course, it took good direction to turn unbelievable footage into a good film. In The Battle of San Pietro, John Huston did that. To the Shores of Iwo Jima definitely fails in that task. Plus it’s racist and jingoistic when the former was smart and focused on the soldiers’ lives. But regardless of its shortcomings, the footage here is jaw-dropping.
I am no expert on psychiatry. I do however have a great interest in American visions of the Soviet Union. Albert Maysles’ 1955 film “Psychiatry in Russia” is a pretty interesting entry in that category.
This week, Méliès Monday brings you 1908’s The Grandmother’s Story.
Although I probably like Her better overall, 12 Years a Slave is an excellent choice for Best Picture.
It’s also worth noting that it the first major Hollywood production to deal with slavery in a serious way came out in 2013. And no, Amistad was not a serious depiction of slavery. Can we aim for 2 major Hollywood productions dealing with slavery in the second century of film? Even a meh biopic of Frederick Douglass?
There are a lot of bad Best Picture winners. And I really dislike Slumdog Millionaire, although the other Best Picture nominees that year are no great shakes. I’d like to give it my vote. And it’s a crime against humanity than Dances with Wolves, off all the dreck out there, won over Goodfellas. But there is not only no worst Best Picture winner than Crash, there is barely a more loathsome movie. OK, that’s a slight overstatement, what with your The Idiots over here and Soldier Blue over there. But my god is Crash a terrible movie. And it was so obviously terrible at the time. I was watching the Oscars with friends the year it won and I remember annoying them with a good bit of angry swearing after it won. And for Christ’s sake, it beat Brokeback Mountain, a film 100 times superior. It also beat Capote, a film 20 times superior. I do have to give Crash credit though–by showing the hellish problem America faces with Iranian on Mexican crime, not to mention the mean the black woman who just doesn’t treat Matt Dillon very nicely which is bad even though Dillon sexually assaulted Thandie Newton and why can’t we all get along and of course Ludarcis carjacking that rich white dude at the beginning of the film after talking about how he hates being stereotyped as a criminal–it demonstrates that all of us are affected by racial prejudice equally and thus we can all equally forget about power structures and come to a nice liberal consensus that racism sucks.
About a year later, I was in Malaysia. There were some Europeans watching the film on a TV at the hotel where I was staying. They were watching it and talking about how messed up the United States well. I felt very smashy.
I think it’s time to turn this over to a better writer than I. Ta-Nehisi Coates, from 2009:
Before we go any further, I need to admit that several people who I love and respect actually like Crash. I need let them know that I don’t hold this against them, and I still love and respect them–though, with Crash in mind, more the former than the latter.
With that said, I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. (“Hey look, I’m a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.”) But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism. To be blunt, nothing tempers my extremism more than watching a fellow liberal exhort the virtues of Crash.
If you’re angry about race, but not particularly interested in understanding why, you probably like Crash. If you’re black and believe in the curative qualities of yet another “dialogue around race,” you probably liked Crash. If you’re white and voted for Barack Obama strictly because he was black, you probably liked Crash. If you’ve ever used the term “post-racial” or “post-black” in a serious conversation, without a hint of irony, you probably liked Crash.
The English language does not contain the words needed to express how much I hate Crash.
I’ve put up another set of short reviews on my tenth-rate film blog. Read if you care. In short:
Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945)–I know people love this film, but I’ve seen in a couple times and can’t get over the huge plot problems.
Women Without Men (Neshat, 2009)–Beautifully shot film about Iranian women during the 1953 coup, major plot issues.
Climate of Change (Hill, 2010)–Unsuccessful documentary about people doing various things to fight climate change, makes no concerted attempt to speak truth to power. Tilda Swinton narrates in rhyme.
Gloria (Lelio, 2013)–Not going to change your life, but a pleasant enough film that embraces the sexuality of people in their 50s. Worthy.
The Oyster Princess (Lubitsch, 1919)–One of the first really complete and successful feature-length comedies. Lots of people doing the same thing does indeed turn out to be funny.
I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Lubitsch, 1918)–A mind-blowing gender bending comedy. Never let it be said silent films didn’t play with sexuality.
Our Daily Bread (Geyrhalter, 2005)–Kind of interesting film about the industrial food system that is incredibly powerful when showing meat production, less successful otherwise because of no narration or interviews.
Aurora (Puiu, 2010)–Another fast-paced Romanian film! Not enough of a payoff for such a long film. I know Puiu was the first of the modern Romanian directors to strike it big internationally, but I tend to find him less satisfactory than the others.
North Country (Caro, 2005)–I really wish this was better than it is.
The Front Line (Hun, 2011)–Fairly blase Korean film about the pointlessness of the last two years of the Korean War.
The Harder They Come (Henzell, 1972)–Sure the plot is a cliche but the music is great and it was probably the first piece of culture projecting the poverty of Kingston to the world. Fun stuff too.
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, 1959)–As awesome as advertised. Can’t believe I went this long without seeing it.
Divorce, Italian Style (Germi, 1961)–Quality satire of Italian gender roles, good thing that’s irrelevant to modern Italy….
I know we are reentering the New Gilded Age, what with the economic inequality and union busting and facial hair. But I’m not sure we need to go this far. I was certainly interested in the old-school high waisted pants Joaquin Phoenix wore in Her, but I didn’t suspect this:
The trousers are inspired by styles from yesteryear, but are intended to portent a futuristic vision of geeky Silicon Valley meets East Village menswear. “The first thing [people] want to know is if all guys are going to be wearing extreme high-waisted pants in the next few years,” said Storm of his involvement with Her.
He added, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “It’s one of the last frontiers of men’s fashion to come back. But it does look weird when you first see it.” He admitted Phoenix himself had said: “I don’t get it, but I trust you guys,” when first told his character Theodore Twombly would be wearing the trousers.
“Theodore [is] sort of an average guy, and we wanted his style to reflect somebody that’s comfortable and not uptight, but also a little disassembled and just going through the world,” Storm told the Opening Ceremony blog last month. “I don’t know exactly how we arrived at the high-waisted pants, but I think when Spike wrote the character, he had Theodore Roosevelt in mind. Joaquin’s pants throughout the film also have a really tapered leg, based on late 1800s pants for riding horses. The vintage pants I found [as inspiration] were from a costume house, and when I tried them on Joaquin, it just looked right. It looked interesting and weird, but it felt comfortable and casual and a little sloppy.”
If this catches on, there’s only one step left I guess in our full return to Gilded Age fashion. Ladies, get out your corsets and gigantic hats. Crushing your internal organs and slaughtering songbirds for fashion goes well with adulterated food, desperate poverty, and extreme wealth.
I for one will not be wearing these pants.
Another set of reviews from my mediocre film blog. Waste time discussing as you like. Films since the last update:
Navy Blue Days, Pembroke and Rock, 1925–Stan Laurel running around a Latin American port looking for lovin’.
Fooling Casper, Montgomery, 1928–Lame adaptation of a popular comic strip of the era.
Her, Jonze, 2013–Brilliant. I liked this so much. Choke me with that dead cat.
The Battle of San Pietro, Huston, 1945–Arguably the greatest war documentary ever made.
American Hustle, Russell, 2013–The definition of entertainment, even if the plot was pretty messy. And of course, awesome fashion.
Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman, 1971–Men. Car. Road. Hear me roar.
The King of Marvin Gardens, Rafelson, 1972–Did not like this much at all.
The Future, July, 2011–July has talent but I mostly didn’t like this film.
On the Edge, Yau, 2006–Very solid Hong Kong gangster/cop film.
Argo, Affleck, 2012–A very solid political thriller. Worthy of Best Picture? Not sure about that. But good.
Inside Llewyn Davis, Coen and Coen, 2013–Minor Coen. Good enough for a night out, but minor. Cat got robbed for Best Actor nomination.
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Kaufman, 1972–Stoned hippie western does Jesse James. Duvall overacts. Cliff Robertson looks like a good hippie sex symbol. Meh.
Foxy Brown, Hill, 1974–It is what it is. Good entertainment. Good movie? Maybe not. Pam Grier could bring it though.
Amour, Haneke, 2012–When Haneke isn’t trying to be a nihilist, he’s a pretty fine filmmaker.