In the early 1940s, as American workers still recovering from the Great Depression found themselves still facing difficult working conditions, upwards of 75,000 Americans joined the American Communist Party as a way to rally around worker rights. The movement was focused solely on improving America and not on aligning with the Soviet Union. One of those who joined the movement was novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who along with a handful of his friends in Hollywood, fought to improve working conditions for everyone involved in the film making industry — not just studio heads and famous actors.
But as the “Red Scare” grew across America, fueled by political rhetoric and fear, Trumbo and his friends were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and when he and others refused to name names he was blacklisted from Hollywood and jailed for 11 months. Trumbo was an American citizen, born and raised in Colorado, and he spent time in prison because of an idea. For years during his Hollywood exile, Trumbo continued to write screenplays under a series of pseudonyms and won two Academy Awards he could not collect. After more than a decade on the blacklist, he was finally able to return to public life and work under his own name thanks in large part to actor and producer Kirk Douglas who hired him to write Spartacus and despite significant pressure against doing so from the industry and congressional representatives, credited Trumbo publicly with writing the screenplay.
I am writing about this today because yesterday I watched the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston and it struck me as eerily familiar. I knew a little bit about the Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare, but I didn’t know Trumbo’s story and I certainly didn’t know how things exploded so quickly in Hollywood toward the exclusion of some of the best talent in the movie industry. The film was fantastic by the way, and Cranston undoubtedly deserved his Academy Award nomination. If you have not seen it, do so right away. And tell your friends to see it. Frankly, the story is so timely every American should watch it today.
It’s 2016, nearly 70 years since the blacklist began and Trumbo served time for an idea, and I’m afraid America has learned nothing from its own history. Nada. Bupkis.
Here we are experiencing another “red” scare. And while nobody has been blacklisted or jailed yet, we are one election away from sheer madness and a repeat of one of the darkest periods in American history. Back then, the red scare was fueled by people we knew — John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper, Walt Disney and a great many members of congress and the political landscape. Americans were being divided. It was madness.
Today, we are experiencing the exact same thing. Exact. Same. Thing. Except instead of Communists, we are being systematically told that the enemy are Mexicans and Latino-Americans, Muslims and Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who conservatives and xenophobes consider “others” or different from themselves can’t be “real” Americans and must therefore be a threat to our country. You know, the country that Donald Trump wants to make “great” again. In this case, “great” means white and Christian and male.
But you know this. We all know it. Trump and his goon squad aren’t even attempting subtlety. They are proud of their blatant racist and sexist rhetoric. And what’s worse, it seems to be working. This is another “red” scare, make no mistake about it. But the bigger issue is, what can we do about it?
Which brings me to Spartacus. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the climactic scene of the film occurs when Spartacus steps forward to his accusers and exclaims: I Am Spartacus. He knows that by doing this he will be killed, but he knows too that he is right and that he’d rather die for doing the right thing than run away or hide behind others. But it’s at that point when everything changes — one by one each of his fellow gladiators step forward and exclaim: I Am Spartacus. Frankly, it’s one of the greatest scenes in film history and yes, it was written by Dalton Trumbo while he was on the blacklist. How friggin’ cool is that?
The blacklist began to end when Americans stood up and said: No More. First Kirk Douglas and then Exodus director Otto Preminger. Then one by one the blacklist fell and Hollywood got back to the business of making films. Yes, it took a while to heal, but eventually Hollywood healed. Three words took down the blacklist. I Am Spartacus.
So to those of you who think what Donald Trump is doing to America is OK, I say this:
I Am Mexican-American.
I Am African-American.
I Am Muslim.
I Am Gay.
Stand up for the “other” with me. Scream it loud and scream it wide. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!