Yesterday, the trailer for the new film Trumbo was released:
There are certainly reasons to be excited about a new film being released about Dalton Trumbo, the writer of films including Spartacus and Exodus, and famously, one of the “Hollywood Ten,” communists that were called before the House Committee for Un-American Activities in 1947 and then subsequently sent to prison and blacklisted in their industry. Bryan Cranston plays Trumbo, and he looks to be a fantastic fit. The film appears to capture Trumbo’s marvelous and verbose wit. And I’m curious to see what they do with Hedda Hopper, played by Helen Mirren.
But there are reasons to be skeptical about this film as well. I’ve written a bit about the narrative that popular culture depictions of the blacklist adopt, and this film appears to be constrained by the same blacklist genre conventions that have governed Guilty by Suspicion and The Majestic.
In short, films about the entertainment industry blacklist have hewed to a simple formula: a liberal or political naif is targeted by an overzealous agent of the state, he undergoes a personal transformation in which he learns to shed his narcissism or obsession with material things, and then he stands up for the principles enshrined by the first amendment. Blacklist films are wholly civil libertarian things, by which I mean that they sideline the matter of civil rights — the causes for which the real blacklistees were fighting for — in favor of a politics that just asks for government to stay out of everyone’s way.
Blacklist films aren’t interested in the Economic Bill of Rights that was sidelined in 1946, nor are they interested in the socialist politics of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, the greatest hope for the coalition of radicals of which many Hollywood actors, writers, and directors were a part. They’re not interested in the politics of the Civil Rights Congress, the Popular Front organization that sought to combat racial inequality in a manner that acknowledged its structural roots. What’s most remarkable is that the structure imposed on the blacklist film is itself a product of the politics of the blacklist. Blacklisted filmmakers sought to make pro-labor films like Salt of the Earth, while the cultural governmentalities of the fifties ensured the films intended to honor those filmmakers resemble The Fountainhead in their elevation of individualism.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Trumbo once the film is released. For now, I’ll make a few quick observations. First, the trailer makes a point of alluding to Dalton Trumbo’s famous quip that he only ever saw the working class as something to get out of. This statement is sometimes invoked to suggest that Trumbo really had no politics, or else that he somehow fails to pass some kind of test of authenticity. This is a mistake I think, and it misses the point that to be a materialist — that is to understand materiality as having a great effect on how one is able to survive and live one’s life — is to reject the idea that one should shirk life’s vulgar objects so that one can be free of material things. I’m curious to see where the film goes with Trumbo’s politics. It seems to me that Marxists, like anyone else, should want to get out of the working class.
Second, and again this is just a trailer, but the final few seconds of the clip seem to suggest that Trumbo will be no different than past blacklist film efforts. The words that flash: “Nobody has the right to tell you how to act, speak..” etc. articulate a clearly civil libertarian vision.
Third, a look at the film’s IMDB cast page paints of the picture of the film’s dramatis personae that is rather narrow. I confess I know little about Trumbo’s personal life — I don’t know who his friends were, or who he hung out with — but wouldn’t it have been great if the film featured Paul Robeson? Or Henry Wallace? Or John Garfield? Or Abraham Polonsky? Or shit, even John Howard Lawson, one of the ten writers and directors to be initially blacklisted, along with Trumbo, and who was also head of the Hollywood Communist Party?