On Strike and On Film

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Ellen R. Baker. On Strike and on Film: Mexican American Families and Blacklisted Filmmakers in Cold War America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8087-5791-5.

Contents

Summary

In her book, On Strike and On Film: Mexican American Families and Blacklisted Filmmakers in Cold War America, Ellen Baker argues that the Empire Zinc Strike that took place from 1950-1952 “challenged ethnic [, gender] and class inequality, first at work, then in local society and politics, and finally (along with left-wing Hollywood artists) in popular culture” (p. 7). Baker supports her argument by summarizing the events of the strike, its impact on family dynamics and the making of the film Salt of the Earth. Baker begins her narrative by describing the exploitive labor practices in Grant County and the role of the Communist Party in union organizing. She explains how “Mine-Mill organized Mexican American men, and some Anglos, by fusing class and ethnic goals in the name of shared brotherhood” (p. 13). Because of this influence, anticommunist pressure was seen by Mexican American union members as a “pretext for returning Grant County to an earlier class and racial order” (p. 13). This created increased loyalty of Mexican American workers and their families to the union.

Baker goes on to explain how there was internal conflict inside the union over unionism based on a brotherhood of men in the mines and unionism based on entire families and community. After an injunction preventing mine workers (men) from picketing, women use the family based unionism to suggest that they assume picket duty. Once the women begin picketing, gender roles in the home are reversed, which causes strain on families and adds gender to the issues of race and class that are debated by the community. Through women’s experience on the picket line and their struggle with law enforcement and courts, Baker notes the increased political consciousness of women. This awareness compels the women of Mine-Mill to question union leadership as well as their subordination at home.

Once the political and social struggle within Mine-Mill is established, Baker summarizes the events leading to the blacklisting of the filmmakers who would make Salt of the Earth and their “experiences of industry and government repression” (p. 7). Although there were many differences, Baker brings out the connection both groups have regarding their experiences with anticommunism. The filmmakers formed their alliance with the mine workers in the hope of bringing “real stories of real working people into commercial theatres” (p. 15). The filmmakers integrated locals into the production of the film and ensured “that they influenced the way the story would be told” (p. 15). The book concludes with a summary of both national and local opposition to the film and the initial effective suppression of distribution of the film and its subsequent popularity in the 1960s.

Commentary

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In her book, On Strike and On Film: Mexican American Families and Blacklisted Filmmakers in Cold War America, Ellen Baker provides a strong example of how local events provide insight into changing gender, ethnic and class relations in the 20th Century. Her comparison of the effects of anticommunism and the Second Red Scare on both the local and national levels brings a needed synthesis to the topic. Also, her focus on race, class and gender adds a solid local example of these large issues in 20th Century America. An inclusion of how the film influenced the film industry is curiously absent. While Baker states that blacklisted artists “produced motion pictures and television shows that projected humanist values despite their opponents’ strenuous efforts to enforce the blacklist,” she never explains if Salt of the Earth had any wider influence on the television or film industry. This addition would significantly strengthen the argument regarding the lasting influence of the film.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

In Baker's On Strike and On Film: Mexican American Families and Blacklisted Filmmakers in Cold War America, she provides an extremely useful social history of Cold War Mexican American workers who engaged in the Empire Zinc strike in 1950. This analysis includes an extensive and strong section on women's roles and gender reversals, such as women taking over for men at picket lines. She also engages in class discussion, showing that Mexican American workers were strongly loyal to the unions, which were under anti-communist attacks in the Cold War US. Lastly, she uses her third section to examine the "artist-worker" alliance in making Salt of the Earth. Baker states that the book "embodies the connections between local and national historical trends: the workings of anti-communism, early efforts at Chicano civil rights, and the trajectory of the American labor movement." (252)

One weakness of Baker's work is her lack of analysis on the film itself. While using the movie to stage her work in examining "a set of unusual events as a lens onto American gender, ethnic and class relations in the changing political climate of the mid-twentieth century," Baker leaves out any historical analysis on the movie itself, leaving only the surrounding events and relationships as the focus of her work, in addition to a small synopsis of the film. (244, 5-7) Although this is not necessarily a terrible oversight that detracts strongly from her analysis, it does seem like an odd choice. In her third section, she examines the unique circumstances surrounding the film, including the politically charged nature of making Salt of the Earth. Her work's treatment of the collaboration of the workers and the all-blacklisted film makers, whom were inspired by the women's role in the strike, to make a film that showed the struggle of the workers is particularly interesting, especially given that the families themselves played roles. (4) The strong reactions from the community and the anger that blacklisted filmmakers were still active made this New Mexico mining story a larger, international one. (4-5)

Overall, On Strike and On Film is a well-written, interesting work with minor flaws. However, Baker's treatment of class, race, gender, politics, and media within the context of the Empire Zinc Strike is quite good and admirable, as it can be extremely difficult to tie in that many elements and make a strong case.

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