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Salt of The Earth: Historical Framework of Social-realism, Populism, and Misery in Film

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Generally speaking social-realism and populist films reflect the life of the common man. According to Raymond Durgnot writing for Film Comment, there have been at least four significant eras that celebrated the so called “salt of the earth” in film. These include the French poetic realism movement of the 1930s and 1940s (Renoir, Clair, Vigo, Clouzot), England’s wartime populism and documentary movement (Dupont, Baxter, Launder, Gilliat), Italian Neo-Realism (Rosselini, DeSica, and Visconti), and American populist films (Ford, Chayefsky, Kazan). Later, in the 1960s and 1970s, New Hollywood filmmakers like John Cassavettes (Shadows, A Women Under The Influence), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Box Car Bertha), and George Lucas (American Graffiti) made films that touched on social-realism as a response to the radicalized political climate of the times. Due to a multiplicity of factors, the populist film quickly fell out of fashion in Hollywood.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a drop in populist films. Actress and director Barbara Loden remarked that, “American arthouses will watch Italian workers but not American ones.” John Hughes recollected that “shots of manual labor often triggered uneasy laughter in arthouses.” However, in Britain, during the same period, filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, descendants of the British New Wave directors (Richardson, Lindsay, Schlesinger) were responding to the effects of Thatcherism. Graham Fuller identifies this particular brand of social-realism as “Misery Films,” which are identified “as having a social-realist agenda, working class milieu, and a contemporary setting,” but they are also exclusively bleak with little room for transcendence. This is potentially problematic in perpetuating negative stereotypes of people from poor backgrounds as being one dimensional.

Arnold came into filmmaking in the early to mid-naughties, on the heel of the misery movement, and her films are perhaps a reaction to the “miserablism” of the British social-realist films which directors Loach and Leigh established. The marked difference in Arnold’s films is that she veers far from her predecessor’s cynicism and misanthropy. Arnold’s representation of people from lower-income backgrounds is more psychological, which doesn’t make it less political. She’s just getting her message across differently. Where traditional social realism portrays the grimness of working class life in a more documentary style, Arnold’s aim isn’t to only dissect the systematic problems that are responsible for the depraved conditions, but to also give agency to her vulnerable characters by treating them as important, psychologically complex, significant, and less-victimized, both narratively and aesthetically, without glamorizing the life either.

Arnold doesn’t shy away from the realities of this harsh environment— particularly in her depiction of young women who face the vulnerabilities and dangers of life with little supervision, money, or positive role models.

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Salt of the Earth: Historical Framework of Social-realism, Populism, and Misery in Film. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from
“Salt of the Earth: Historical Framework of Social-realism, Populism, and Misery in Film.” GradesFixer, 14 May 2019,
Salt of the Earth: Historical Framework of Social-realism, Populism, and Misery in Film. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Mar. 2023].
Salt of the Earth: Historical Framework of Social-realism, Populism, and Misery in Film [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 May 14 [cited 2023 Mar 29]. Available from:
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