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'Salt of the Earth' is back from the blacklist

March 04, 2003|Lee Hockstader | Washington Post

SANTA FE, N.M. — It is doubtful that any other American movie inspired such official harassment and outright intimidation as "Salt of the Earth," the saga of striking Mexican American miners written and directed by blacklisted Hollywood filmmakers during the Red Scare. During the course of production in New Mexico in 1953, the trade press denounced it as a subversive plot, anti-Communist vigilantes fired rifle shots at the set and the film's leading lady was deported to Mexico.

"Salt of the Earth" was so thoroughly suppressed on its release in 1954 that some film historians call it the only blacklisted American movie.

But "Salt" had a second act. The story of its suppression, as much as the movie itself, inspired a cult following of leftists, feminists, Latinos, historians and film buffs. They rediscovered it in the '60s and resurrected it gradually in film schools, union halls and women's centers. Having sustained it for 50 years, hundreds of "Salt" fans converged here for a conference sponsored by the College of Santa Fe that was part tribute to the film and part political protest rally.

As the theater lights dimmed for a showing of "Salt," Dolores Huerta, the renowned labor leader who, with Cesar Chavez, founded the United Farm Workers, cried, "Viva la justicia!"

To the film's loyalists, the fact that Hollywood is planning a remake of "Salt of the Earth" is proof of its resonance. In a new age of threats from abroad, the suppression of "Salt of the Earth" was taken as an object lesson of the perils of intolerance and shrinking civil liberties.

"I'm not making the comparison to McCarthyism, but I do think that, under cover of creating an atmosphere of war, government can overreach and take power and limit people's freedom and rights in ways that could not occur were it not for this atmosphere of fear," said Moctesuma Esparza, who is producing the remake of "Salt of the Earth." Esparza, who produced "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "Gods and Generals," expects filming on the remake of "Salt" to begin later this year.

The original film was the brainchild of director Herbert Biberman, who had been jailed for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee; Michael Wilson, a talented screenwriter who later wrote "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia"; and producer Paul Jarrico. Denied work in Hollywood studios because of their Communist affiliations, the three formed an independent production company. They decided to make a film dramatizing the 1950-51 strike by Mexican American workers at the Empire Zinc Mine in southwestern New Mexico.

The Hollywood Reporter called it "Commie" propaganda directed by the Kremlin. A Republican congressman, speaking on the floor of the House, vowed to keep "this Communist-made film" out of movie theaters.

The FBI scrutinized the film's financing, seeking a Communist Party connection. (There was none.) The American Legion called for a boycott. Unionized projectionists were instructed not to show it.

The zinc mine that was the site of the strike closed in 1967. But curiosity about the movie grew. Left-leaning film schools began teaching it. In 1992, the Library of Congress decreed a print of "Salt" would be kept for all time.

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