Monday, November 09, 2015


There have been a number of Hollywood films about the blacklist.  Most can't capture the feeling of the times because it's hard to relate to--we just don't care about communists today, so it all seems crazy.  Yes, it was crazy, but not quite in the way we think of it.  Imagine, say, a film about the government uncovering a fascist conspiracy in the 40s and you might start to get the feeling.

The new film about Dalton Trumbo--probably the most important screenwriter to be blacklisted in the 1950s--looks at this era.  It has the same trouble as those other films.  But on top of that, the filmmakers can't help but comment in ways that exploit the prejudices of today, so (mixing old and fake-old footage) they try to show Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, as someone who sold out his people in his testimony to HUAC.

You can certainly make this argument, but Reagan (as is so often the case) was a least a little more subtle than his critics.  For one thing, communists were trying to infiltrate Hollywood unions and incite violence. They also threatened him personally, saying they'd throw acid in his face.  So if this was a witch hunt, there were some real witches.

But the most unfortunate thing is movies like Trumbo imply Reagan was willing to destroy rights to get at the communists.  It's not that simple.  Here's the closing of his testimony:

MR. REAGAN: In opposing those people, the best thing to do is make democracy work.  [....]  As a citizen, I would hesitate to see any political party outlawed on the basis of its political ideology. [....] I never as a citizen want to see our country become urged, by either fear or resentment of this group that we ever compromise with any of our democratic principles through that fear or resentment. I still think that democracy can do it.

For some reason, this part of his testimony never makes it into any film.


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