Red Hollywood


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Red Hollywood
"For an outsider, it's hard to imagine a country growing up without these narratives."

Originally made in 1996 and, ironically, unable to get a cinematic release until 2014, this is the only one of the many films on Hollywood's anti-Communist purges to actually look at the films involved. Setting aside, for the most part, the stories of those individuals blacklisted due to McCarthyism, it focuses instead on the work they produced. In doing so, it asks two questions. Were they really making a deliberate attempt to push new political ideas into the mainstream? And if so, was that a bad thing?

History has focused so much on the fear of reds under the beds that we have lost sight of Hollywood's relationship with some of the other ideological battles of the time. The most fascinating sections o this film look at how the struggles of women and black people to attain equality were reflected in film some time before what we tend to think of as breakthrough moments - and how those films were kept from being seen in cinemas. Considered every bit as subversive as meditations on economic rights, they contributed at some filmmakers being placed on the blacklist. This documentary provides a rare chance to see clips of them that will leave you wanting more. They seem chronologically awry, combining the melodramatic style of the time with storylines from a couple of decades later and an approach to characterisation that feels much more like something we'd expect today.

Alongside these are American films on workers' rights that resemble much of the output of European cinema in the period, filtered through a different cultural lens. Some come across like cheesy propaganda (even if one agrees with the message) but others simply fill a gap in the onscreen narratives of the time, providing a perspective on the lives of the little people who drifted in and out of the background of big Hollywood productions, acknowledging poverty and its attendant hardships. For an outsider, it's hard to imagine a country growing up without these narratives, or relying on looking back to film noir and the Depression era silents made by the likes of Charlie Chaplin to see that part of the population represented. In a world before video, generations were raised on a restricted cinematic diet, and it's only upon seeing what was missing that one can begin to understand the impact of that.

Impressively neutral in tone and devoid of the sentimentality that often dogs musings on McCarthyism, Red Hollywood goes some way toward restoring the intellectual contributions lost as a result. It places the suppression of ideas into a context Westerners will find familiar and thereby mounts a challenge to all such actions, indirectly providing its own critique of Communist countries as well as of America's failings. Finally, it leaves open the question of what these films might have done if they had been made available. Would they influenced ordinary Americans' choices? Would that country still look the same today? We see here the ghosts of America past, present and future.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2014
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A documentary about the films caught up in Hollywood's hunt for Communist infiltrators.

Director: Thom Andersen, Noël Burch

Writer: Thom Andersen, Noël Burch

Starring: Abraham Polonsky, Paul Jarrico, Billy Woodberry, Alfred Lewis Levitt

Year: 2014

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: US


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