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Politics Pepper 'Salt'

Influential, roughhewn film of New Mexico strike mined a rich vein of women's and Latino issues.

May 13, 1999|RANDY LEWIS and ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's a safe bet that if "Salt of the Earth" (1954) had dealt only with a labor strike by zinc miners in New Mexico, it never would have become the cult classic it is.

The primitive acting by most of the nonprofessionals in the cast makes for some rough movie-watching.

Actors almost spit their lines at one another. Juan Chacon, as strike leader Ramon Quintero, tells his wife to stop pestering him about the poor sanitation in their shantytown near the mine, where he struggles to improve life-threatening working conditions: "You're a woman! You won't know what it's like up there!"

Rosaura Revueltas, as his pregnant wife, Esperanza, shoots back: "The Anglo bosses look down on you and you hate them for it. 'Stay in your place, you dirty Mexican'--that's what they say to you. But why must you say to me, 'Stay in your place?' Do you feel better having someone lower than you?"

Because the script presciently addressed women's and Latinos' rights--at a time when both were on the back burner of most Americans' consciousness--it's considerably more than a one-note theme. The still timely message: If equality doesn't extend to all segments of society, it doesn't really exist for any.

The film's cinema verite quality was no fluke. Many in the cast had taken part in the real-life strike that's only thinly fictionalized in "Salt," which screens today at the Unitarian Church of Orange County in Anaheim.

Clinton Jencks, the mine workers' union rep in real life who played the same role in the movie, later said: "You couldn't tell the difference . . . between reality and reenacting reality."

In a 1994 interview with a PBS-TV affiliate in Las Cruces, N.M., to mark its 40th anniversary, Jencks talked about the scene where miners restrain Chacon's character as he lunges at a foreman who has hurled a racial epithet at him. "He wasn't kidding," Jencks recalled. "I was holding onto him--he kicked me so hard in the shins I carried black and blue bruises for a month. Juan was not acting."

Chacon later became president of the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers that had staged the strike. Participants said the union was strengthened by its victory in the brutal months-long strike, which at one point found the miners' wives taking over their picket line when the miners were threatened with jail if they continued picketing. Jencks said conditions subsequently improved for those mostly Latino zinc miners and their families. "We never had to strike again," he said.

Things didn't go so well for other participants. Because members of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten including director Herbert J. Biberman, producer Paul Jarrico, writer Michael Wilson and actor Will Geer, had worked on "Salt of the Earth," the president of the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees barred the projectionists in his union from showing it. As a result, it screened in only 13 theaters in the U.S. when it was released.

Biberman, one of 13 founders of the Screen Directors Guild of America, which became the Directors Guild of America, only had his membership to the Directors Guild restored in 1997--28 years after he died. The only film he directed after "Salt" was "Slaves" (1969), another tale of struggle for equality.

Writer-director John Sayles later used "Salt" as a plot point in "Return of the Secaucus 7," his pre-"Big Chill" movie about a group of '60s college radicals who have a weekend reunion, during which they discuss the impact that seeing "Salt of the Earth" had on their lives and their politics.

* "Salt of the Earth," Unitarian Church of Orange County, 511 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. 7:30 p.m. today. Free. (714) 525-1348.

Documentary Looks at Feminist Filmmakers

An unusual documentary at UC Irvine will trace the work of 18 feminist film and video makers from the early 1970s to the present.

"Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video" was made last year by Claremont's Pitzer College film studies professor Alexandra Juhasz. Her film shows works by, and interviews with, such prominent, thoughtful provocateurs as Carolee Schneemann, Constance Penley, Victoria Vesna, Valerie Soe, Barbara Hammer and Michelle Citron.

"It's a unique historical documentary," said Sheila C. Murphy, assistant director of UCI's Film and Video Center. "All of the film and video makers have done works which are hard to get to see."

Juhasz, also a feminist theorist, will attend the screening and answer questions from the audience after the screening.

* "Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video" screens today at 7 p.m. at UC Irvine's Film and Video Center, Humanities Instructional Building, Room 100, off West Peltason Drive. Not rated. Running Time: 83 minutes. $4-$6. (949) 824-7418.

'Sugar Cane' Explores Colonial Martinique

Director-screenwriter Euzhan Palcy was 31 when she attained international success with "Sugar Cane Alley" (1984), an exploration set in 1931 of the lives of poor blacks on the French-controlled Caribbean island of Martinique.

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