A production shot at for being communist. A lead actress deported. Investigation by the FBI. These things, plus companies trying to prevent the print and distribution, all faced Salt of the Earth – a story about how unions and collective bargaining can improve the lot of oppressed workers. A film with messages promoting gender equality (for the 1950s) and fairness for all workers no matter their race. No wonder so many in power in the US tried to stop this being made and then to bury it afterwards.
For a proper look into the history of this film, there is a great episode of You Must Remember This which contextualizes it as part of the longer running McCarthy witch hunts that burned through Hollywood. The fact that this film not only got made, but was also able to put forward its messages with nuance and great performances by a troupe of non-actors is pretty impressive.
Watching this, I can see that this is what The Exiles was trying for in terms of style – using non-actors from an ethnic minority to tell their story and do so in a neo-realistic style so that it feels almost documentarian. However, Salt of the Earth is able to succeed on all fronts and is only hindered by what would have been awful conditions in pre, post and actual production.
Sure it works not being a major studio film when telling this small, but important, story. It stops it from descending into melodrama and gives us the strong female lead we need. However, it would have also meant better editing, continuity and sound work – all things that take you out of it when a pause is too long or when positions move between shots. Still a great and worthwhile watch though when you want to see something that got a large group of creatives blacklisted.