Hollywood movies are suffused with an elitist, coastal liberalism that’s out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. That, at any rate, is what we’ve been told for decades by conservative culture warriors.
The truth is more complicated. Hollywood has never been a cultural or political monolith, and the accuracy of the elitism accusation has waxed and waned over the years.
But one thing that hit me when I rewatched the classic 1954 movie Salt of the Earth amid the ongoing writers’ strike is that, to whatever extent the charge is true, conservatives themselves deserve part of the blame. They were the biggest supporters of the movie studios’ mid-century purge of “subversives” and anyone else with too much integrity to “name names” to the government.
Salt of the Earth is exactly the kind of movie that blacklisted radicals wanted to create — humane, often funny, and deeply in touch with the concerns of ordinary people.
A Glimpse of the Hollywood That Could Have Been
Salt of the Earth was made outside the studio system and bankrolled by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, a militant union that had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for its refusal to purge Communists. The movie’s writer, director, and producer had all been blacklisted from Hollywood for their refusal to name names. The director, Herbert Biberman, had been a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” the group of writers and directors thrown in jail for their refusal to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Salt of the Earth tells the story of a fictional miners’ strike — closely modeled on a real one — in a small town in New Mexico. The main character, Esperanza Quintero, is a housewife about to have her third child. Her husband and the other zinc miners work in unsafe conditions and are the victims of blatant ethnic discrimination by the “Delaware Zinc” corporation — a thinly fictionalized version of the Empire Zinc Company. As union organizer Frank Barnes tells the miners, the company needs to treat the Mexican-American workers in Zinc Town worse than everyone else so they can tell their “Anglo” equivalents at other mines “at least you don’t have it as bad as the Mexicans.”
Barnes, like many of the other characters, is essentially played by himself. The cast of Salt of the Earth includes only five professional actors, and many of the roles are performed by the very people who inspired the characters. Barnes is played by real-life union organizer, academic, and Democratic Socialists of America member Clinton Jencks. Esperanza’s husband Ramon Quintero, a union leader who has trouble treating women as equals, is played by Juan Chacón — the real president of a union local in New Mexico.
Some of these people were severely punished for their participation in the film. During the backlash over the movie, Jencks came to the attention of the authorities. He was arrested and convicted — based on flimsy evidence — for allegedly lying in an affidavit that he wasn’t a Communist. The actress who portrayed Esperanza, Rosaura Revueltas, was deported to Mexico while the movie was still being filmed. No one died as a result of their participation, but even that’s a matter of luck — one report mentions “rifle shots” being fired at the set by “anti-Communist vigilantes.”
Under such circumstances, it’s amazing that the film was completed at all. In a timeline where Hollywood’s history wasn’t marred by McCarthyism, though, who knows how many movies like Salt of the Earth we would have gotten?
A Tale of Two Union Movies
Salt of the Earth is a movie about class struggle, but it’s not a crude dramatization of lessons from a Marxist reading group. It’s a movie about real people, and if the cops and mining executives are straightforward villains, the movie isn’t afraid of exploring the flaws and complexity of its good guys. Certainly, it would be hard to argue that it’s any more of an ideological morality tale than On the Waterfront, a movie that came out the same year and was showered with love by the Hollywood establishment — while hardly any theaters dared to show Salt of the Earth.
On the Waterfront was made by director Elia Kazan as a thinly disguised rebuke to everyone who was disgusted with him for naming names to HUAC. It’s about a dockworkers’ union run by a violent mobster, where the characters face a binary choice between having the guts to stand up to the mobsters by naming names to the Waterfront Crime Commission or being intimidated into silence. The film is a grotesque exercise in self-justification made by a man who ratted on his colleagues not for involvement in violent crimes but for First Amendment–protected political activity. While Clinton Jencks was arrested and Rosaura Revueltas was deported, On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards.
Kazan received an additional Oscar — the Lifetime Achievement award — in 1999. While a few of the assembled actors and directors had the dignity to refuse to applaud the man who’d spent the McCarthy era fingering their colleagues to the authorities, and others protested outside the ceremony, Robert DeNiro presented the award and Hollywood liberals in good standing like Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep gave Kazan a standing ovation.
Six years later, the Academy was lavishing nominations on Good Night, and Good Luck — a movie filmed in nostalgic black and white about journalist Edward R. Murrow’s decision to speak out against McCarthyism. That Oscar night was hilariously satirized in the South Park episode Smug Alert!, where “smug” is a physical substance like smog, and a dangerous amount of smug is released into the environment by Good Night, and Good Luck director George Clooney. I’m sure everyone who was persecuted for Salt of the Earth would have appreciated the satire if they’d been around to see Hollywood patting itself on the back for making a movie about McCarthyism half a century after doing so would have taken any courage.
As the Writers Guild of America (WGA) settles in for what looks to be a long strike, it’s worth remembering that the problem with Hollywood has never been a lack of writers and directors who want to tell compelling stories about ordinary people if they’re allowed to do so and given the necessary financial support. Writers and directors like that existed in 1954, and they exist today. Whether we’re talking about the precarity writers are fighting against now or the vicious purge of Hollywood radicals in the 1950s, the problem has always been the bosses.
And whether you’re a striking miner in “Zinc Town” or a striking screenwriter in Hollywood, it’s good to remember what Esparanza tells Juan near the end of Salt of the Earth. He’s just insisted that he’ll never “go back to that company on my knees” — returning to work without a fair contract. She agrees but pushes back against his tone of fatalistic resignation. “I don’t want to go down fighting,” she says. “I want to win.”