During the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-AmericanActivities Committee sought to rid the film industry of anyone thought progressive or left-leaning. Several blacklisted members of the industry formed a film production company. Among them were Herbert Biberman, Paul Jarrico, Albert Maltz, Michael Wilson, and Adrian Scott. One of their projects was the film Salt of the Earth.
Salt of the Earth was a groundbreaking film that realistically portrayed the real-life struggles of striking zinc mineworkers fighting for equality in all areas. In the film, the mineworkers call a strike against the company for which they worked, protesting low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate and unsanitary living facilities. Threatened with loss of job and eviction if they continue the strike, the men are on the verge of giving up when their wives, led by Esperanza, wife of Ramon Quintero, president of the union, join the men on the picket line. The strike is successful.
Frances was a progressive and an activist in both stage and film communities. She was on the board of Actors’ Equity, Actors’ Lab, The Circle Theatre, and Cosmos. She’d helped form the black caucus in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and she had lectured twice at the Lee Strausberg Studio in New York. Because of her impeccable credentials, Frances was hired as assistant director. Though at the time she was doing another film, she looked forward to working on this new exciting project. Casting for the film began at her home in Los Angeles. It included both professional and non professional actors, many of It included both professional and non professional actors, many of whom were actual zinc mine workers.
In the original script, an Anglo couple were supposed to play the lead. However, that was changed. Then Sonja Dahl was hired to play Esperanza Quintero, the lead role. She insisted on having a professional actor play opposite her. Bert Corona was hired by the company to search for a Mexican lead to play opposite Dahl. When no one could be found, Dahl dropped out. Rosaura Revueltas, an actress whose family were activists, accepted the role of Esperanza. Juan Chacon, president of Local 890 and a non-professional actor, was selected to play Ramon Quintero.
As assistant director, Frances would get the actors together to go over their lines and set the tempo. Because of her role, she was able to build rapport with many of the non-professional workers on the film. However, she was constantly running into problems with members of the production company. Whenever there was a conflict, she interceded on behalf of the miners and succeeded in elevating their role in the film.According to Lorenzo Torrez, who played himself, one of the striking mine workers, had it not been for Frances’s presence, their role would have been minute. While the filmmakers included Frances on their project, “she was never really accepted.”Throughout the production both internal and external conflicts threatened to kill the project. Corporate heads tried to stop production, the actors and technicians were harassed, sound recordings were ruined by planes flying over shooting locations, and Rosaura Revueltas was deported on a phony charge of not having her visa properly stamped.
Despite the obstacles, the film makes a positive statement about unions, relationships, and equality for women. Also it highlighted the plight of Hispanic workers. While the filmmakers have been honored for their artistic achievement, little recognition has been given to the mine workers. As a result of the strike, while not all their problems were resolved, they did achieve a contract based on the Fair Employment Practices Commission. A number of other things were achieved; for example, housing was no longer segregated and mine workers were able to gain participation on the executive board. Most importantly, the film helped garner support for the trade union movements throughout the South and Southwest.