Un-American Activities: American Realism
and the Utopian imagination of Leftist
Fiction in the Long 1950s
In 1954, Herbert Biberman, Paul Jarrico, and Michael Wilson joined forces with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers to make the film Salt of the Earth, still widely regarded as the greatest work of radical cinema to have been produced in America. The film was a genuine departure from the Hollywood norm, not only in its clearly leftist political stance but also in its attempt to give voice to the workingclass Mexican Americans of New Mexico, a group that had previously received little attention in American culture, even in the culture of the American Left. Salt of the Earth also directly thumbed its nose at the anticommunist purges sweeping Hollywood at the time, a phenomenon that had already landed Biberman, Jarrico, and Wilson on the blacklist. Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten, had even served time in the federal pen in Texarkana, Texas, as a political prisoner. Not surprisingly, retribution for this act of resistance was swift. One of the film's stars, Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, was deported to Mexico even before filming was completed. Meanwhile, the resources of corporate Hollywood, reinforced by the U.S. government, responded with a vigorous suppression of the finished film, organizing an official boycott that denied the film access to theater screens all over America.1
This effort at censorship and suppression was almost entirely successful. Salt of the Earth went virtually unseen and was soon almost forgotten. Luckily, the film was rediscovered in the 1960s, becoming a sort of cult classic on college campuses all over America. Granted, it is not at all clear that the largely middle-class white audiences who saw the film in this way were entirely capable of understanding the real conditions of the struggle that the film depicts and of which it became a part. Nevertheless, the film was saved from oblivion and remains, if nothing else, available on video (it was released on DVD in 1999) and therefore accessible to future audiences.