Book Examines Racism amid Red Scare

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Historian Gerald Horne talks with NPR's Farai Chideya about the life of blacklisted screenwriter John Howard Lawson. Lawson wrote the early anti-apartheid film Cry The Beloved Country under a pseudonym.

ED GORDON, host:

How did the communist scare of the 1940s and ‘50s affect progress against American racism? Historian Gerald Horne asked that question, and he found an answer in the experience of a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter named John Howard Lawson.

Horne discussed Lawson's struggle with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Tell us a story that epitomizes who John Howard Lawson was at the height of his career before all of this happened.

Mr. GERALD HORNE (Author, Final Victim of the Blacklist): At the height of his career was World War II, when he wrote the screenplay for Sahara, starring Rex Ingram and Humphrey Bogart. And there's a scene in that movie that was a breakthrough in terms of the cinematic depiction of African-Americans. You see this black man chase down a Nazi in the desert and strangle him, which is quite unusual, even today, to see such violence inflicted upon a racist.

And this strangling was symbolic and metaphorically depicting the strangling of white supremacy that was coming out of World War II. And it's this kind of cinematic dynamite that, of course, caused John Howard Lawson to be hauled before Congressional committees after this war ended and basically scolded, and then eventually imprisoned for his gumption.

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about the cauldron of attitudes and money and power in Los Angeles, in Hollywood, after World War II. Tell us, for example, about the anti-Semitism class issues.

Mr. HORNE: Well, Hollywood as an industry, as you probably know, was deeply influenced by Jewish-American men. When the film industry was launched in this region some 190 years ago, there was little understanding that this was going to be the moneymaking cash cow that it became. And as a result, so-called minorities, like Jewish-Americans, were allowed in on the ground floor.

These moguls came under enormous pressure. They were accused of sheltering communists, like John Howard Lawson. This was said to be due to ethno-religious ties and connections, not necessarily due to the fact that Lawson was a talented playwright and crafter of dialogue, et cetera.

So after World War II ended they came under enormous pressure to purge the industry of people like Lawson, and they capitulated.

CHIDEYA: Flash forward for us to these hearings, and Lawson being front and center. How did he comport himself? What kinds of questions was he asked? How did he respond?

Mr. HORNE: He was basically asked about his role in the Communist Party, and in the Screenwriters Guild, which he was a founding president of. He sought to try to avoid those questions, particularly about the former, the membership in the Communist Party, because it was felt that if he answered that question that would open the door to then naming names and basically revealing the identities of innocent parties who might not have been communists or not communists at that particular moment, and he was seeking to avoid that.

As a result, he was pressed quite vigorously by the members of that committee, which included a ski-nose Congressman from southern California by the name of Richard M. Nixon, who, of course, was catapulted into prominence because of his rather brisk interrogation of Lawson.

The long and the short of it was that Lawson was ultimately bodily escorted away from the microphone.

CHIDEYA: What were the circumstances that brought Lawson to prison?

Mr. HORNE: Well, as a result of his being called before this Congressional committee, he was charged with contempt of Congress for not adequately responding to the questions, or so it was said. And as a result, he had to go to federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky, as did a number of other leading screenwriters at that time.

And as the saying goes, you only have to beat one slave to keep the entire plantation in line. And this was a signal to writers that they had to trim their sails if they wanted to keep working. And what this led to, of course, was writers like Lawson developing fronts so to speak; they could not put their names on scripts.

And as a front, Lawson wrote the screenplay to Cry, the Beloved Country, which was probably the first anti-apartheid drama. It starred Canada Lee, the leading black actor who had a premature death because of the pressure that he was placed under as a result of his being outspoken against the witch hunts. And, of course, Sidney Poitier.

It's interesting that this movie gained significant attention, but, of course, Lawson's name was not on it even though he had written the screenplay. And this, of course, is very psychologically stressful to an artist that your work is being hailed, but you are somehow not given credit or responsibility for it.

CHIDEYA: Would it have killed the movie if he had said, hey, it was me, it was me?

Mr. HORNE: Probably the movie would've been ticketed, the producers of the movie may have been hailed before a Congressional committee to explain why they hired him to do the writing, perhaps many patrons would have boycotted the movie. So it might have been rather damaging.

CHIDEYA: This entire idea of bringing screenwriters before Congress gives an awful lot of credit to the art of screenwriting.

Mr. HORNE: Well, it's interesting that, at the time, the inquisitors tried to justify and rationalize paying so much attention to screenwriters by trying to link them to atomic spy scandals, which was a stretch to put it mildly. On the other hand, let's face it, movies were a powerful tool. They massage consciousness. They can defame or not defame entire communities.

To that extent, it's understandable why so much attention was paid to screenwriters.

In 2006, we need to look back a bit more critically at this period. Lawson was a communist, and the Soviet Union was the then named antagonist of the United States of America. I think it's fair to say in 2006 that this single-minded attention on the Soviet Union, which involved alliances with so-called Islamic fundamentalists and the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which also involved turning China against the Soviet Union, might have been going a bit too far.

Because in 2006, of course, those in Washington, what helps to occupy a good deal of their waking hours, of course, is A, so-called Islamic fundamentalism, and B, the economic challenge from China. Perhaps a more balanced approach to the Soviet Union in 1947 and throughout the 1950s might not have led to this dilemma we're facing in 2006.

CHIDEYA: Gerald Horne, thank you so much.

Mr. HORNE: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with historian Gerald Horne. His upcoming book about John Howard Lawson is called Final Victim of the Blacklist.

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