Urgent History: Hollywood’s Past and the Future of Human Rights

Since Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare opened many local colleges have assigned students to view and respond to the exhibit. At the Museum, we generally do not get to read their responses, so the staff was delighted when UW-Milwaukee History Professor Christine Evans shared this piece written by Ph.D. candidate Zach Anderson reflecting on his experience in Blacklist.

Urgent History: Hollywood’s Past and the Future of Human Rights
Response to a History-Related Event by Zach Anderson

November 2018

Upon arrival to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s exhibit titled Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare, I am led to a seat in a makeshift cinema. A sleek, digital, (mostly) black-and-white animation – about 7 or 8 minutes long – provides an extremely condensed introduction to the political debates surrounding World War II, the “Red Scare,” and the Cold War. Simultaneously, this animation intertwines a brief history of visual media, including claims about cinema-escapism during the Great Depression, the government’s involvement in propagandistic filmmaking during the war, and the eventual Hollywood Blacklist. Because the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) clearly overlaps these political and cinematic histories, the film concludes its linear narrative with HUAC’s formal termination in 1975.

Initially, there seems to be a tension in this video: the animated film’s flashy style and engaging soundtrack appeal directly to the viewers’ present sensibilities, while its chronological narrative’s abrupt conclusion seems to isolate these events in the distant, black-and-white past. However, this tension does not last long. After walking away from the pseudo-theatre, many museum displays counter my initial assumptions that the issues raised by the film concluded with HUAC’s termination in the mid-1970s.

The museum displays – which frequently involve archival evidence such as photographs, employment documents, trade magazines, etc. – explicitly force attendees to consider the Blacklist’s connection to today’s political climate. One display suggests that “as you are exploring this exhibit, consider the following ideas: How should the government balance security and civil liberties? What parallels can be found between this time and others…?” Nearby, additional prompts force me to connect my own thoughts about various archival photographs and primary documents to my present situation. For example, a photograph of mild protests raised by many Hollywood actors and filmmakers – Bogart, Bacall, Huston, etc. – is followed by an unambiguous question related to the present: “Does celebrity interest change the way we understand an issue?”

Other displays are a bit subtler about their connections to contemporary debates. For example, there are many references to Ayn Rand’s role in the Blacklist, including her development of the “Screen Guide for Americans.” Rand’s own celebrity status among many neo-Conservatives – a group that likely still agrees with the Screen Guide’s warnings against films that “smear the profit motive” or “glorify failure” – clearly relates to today’s political culture, even if the connection remains implicit.

Despite some displays’ implicit connections to the present, though, the exhibit’s most explicit examples frame the entire experience in relation to today’s urgent, political debates. For example, under biographies of individuals fired for their perceived political beliefs, a caption asks: “Should political stances be a consideration for employment decisions? Are there any contemporary examples?” Even when these questions remain more implicit (as in the Ayn Rand example), the exhibit has already prepared me to ask myself direct questions about the present.

One prominent display, which seems to most overtly define the exhibit’s argument, explains that the Hollywood Blacklist should be understood as one illustration of the larger Red Scare. After experiencing the full exhibit, however, I believe the overarching argument is much broader: the Hollywood Blacklist should be understood as one example of always-present restrictions – and struggles for – human rights. In other words, the exhibit appeals to guests (like me) that are deeply interested in the history of Hollywood, but cinema, stardom, and the Hollywood Blacklist are simply the lens through which these exhibitors have chosen to explore an urgent political question: why would a society accept the systematic restriction of human rights – and how can these abuses be resisted?

The initial animation concluded with HUAC’s termination in 1975. Near the end of the exhibit, there are additional hints at closure, especially in descriptions of formerly-Blacklisted men and women returning to work in various film-related positions. On the surface, these elements seem to characterize the exhibit’s history as one driven by progress – and perhaps even a history that “concluded” decades ago. Yet, while the animation and overall exhibit do often present a linear timeline of events, there are many prominent attempts to frame this history and its thematic questions in ways that resist narratives of progress and directly relate these issues to present debates about human rights.

By placing this exhibit within a Jewish museum and frequently emphasizing the Jewish experiences of the Hollywood Blacklist, these historical struggles for human rights are unquestionably positioned within a wider discourse about (ongoing) anti-Semitism. However, the exhibit does not only position Jews as victims of the Blacklist. Under a section titled “The Jewish Response,” text points out a contradiction: many Jews, including Jewish lawyers, stood up for certain human rights, while paradoxically many Jewish organizations also systematically kicked out perceived communists. The exhibit draws clear connections between HUAC and anti-Semitism but refuses simplistic dichotomies between heroes and villains. Instead, the exhibit’s overarching argument about the ever-present fight for the protection of human rights implicates all attendees and invites everyone to consider their own role in this struggle.

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