Let freedom ring! or, I was an anti-integrationist for the FBI

Civil War Memory informed me that Jan. 1 was the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Rather than tackle the subject of slavery (which I’ve done recently a few times—here, for instance) I’m going to revisit 1951’s I Was a Communist for the FBI.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, one of the things that leaps out at me regarding the old anti-Communist movies (when I was watching them for Screen Enemies of the American Way) is how hostile they are to the civil-rights movement. Looking back, it’s easy to assume that people who claimed that the civil rights movement was a Communist plot were the fringe of the day; the movies remind us the idea wasn’t really outside the mainstream.
I Was a Communist is the fictionalized story of FBI informant Matt Cvetic (the plot is bullshit—the extent to which Cvetic’s character got scrubbed up as well is something sources differ on), a Pittsburgh steelworker and union man (played here by Frank Lovejoy) who’s also a Communist Party member, which costs him his family and alienates his son. If only he could tell them that he’s really an FBI informant, working for America! Tragically, even if he were able to walk away, the FBI can never reveal his methods, so his reputation will always be tarnished.
In reality, of course, Cvetic became a public figure like many professional ex-Communists, with the movie, a radio show and a Matt Cvetic Day in Pittsburgh to his credit. Within the movie, he gets redemption when the FBI completely reverses itself from You’re Too Valuable To Sacrifice to having him testify at the Smith Act trials of the party leadership (no explanation why the switch, just as in the real world nobody ever pointed out that being an informant turned into a pretty swell career gig for a lot of the ex-Reds).
Getting back to race … In one scene, Blandon (James Millican), an American Commie and Moscow-trained orator, speechifies to a black audience, delivering (in Cvetic’s words) “a hellbrew of hate cooked up in the Kremlin.” (We don’t actually hear the details) Afterwards, Blandon sneeringly refers to his audience (out of their earshot of course) with the n-word (Cvetic is shocked) and hopes that his speech will inspire a race riot; ideally, the Pittsburgh blacks will kill someone, after which the Party will raise a defense fund and then launder the money, just as they did for the Scottsboro Boys (while Communist lawyers did offer their services in that case—involving black men accused of raping the white women they’d been traveling with—I can’t find any reliable source that claims they ripped them off).
What’s striking is the total lack of any alternative to the Communist-front version of the movement. We’re shown Communists actively infiltrating the steelworkers union and browbeating the regular joes in the union into striking (it’s an axiom of these movies that labor troubles, like racial issues, are always the work of Reds—Woman on Pier 13 is another example). There’s never any suggestion in the fifties films, though, that unions themselves are inherently Red or evil; non-Communist labor movements are a good thing.
Non-communist civil-rights groups? There’s no hint these even exist. Pittsburgh’s black community are simply sheep being gulled by the Communists, who are trying to divide us when America needs to be united against the Red Menace (just as Nazis in WW II movies were forever scheming to set Americans against each other). The idea they had any real issues or discontents is studiously ignored, as it is in I Led Three Lives and Red Menace.
Part of this is probably due to the fact that American Communists did support civil rights; it’s one of the things many Communists would say convinced them to join the party in the first place. And as those of us old enough to remember the Cold War know, once Commies were associated with any idea or movement, it was instantly rebranded as a Communist Front.
Another part of it is probably packaging for an audience that wasn’t enthused on integration. Movie histories often blame this on the South, though the north was no hotbed of equality either (The Celluloid South argues the south simply wasn’t a big enough market to matter).
Part of it may have been the screenwriter or studio’s sincere belief—though I don’t think that matters. Whether they were writing what they thought would sell or making a sincere statement of belief, it’s just as loathsomely offensive.


Filed under Movies, Politics, Screen Enemies of the American Way

3 responses to “Let freedom ring! or, I was an anti-integrationist for the FBI

  1. Pingback: 1950′s movies marathon – part 13 « Bjørn Stærk's Max 256 Blog

  2. Pingback: Conspiracy theories of those who rule | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Well-meaning villains: our good became their evil | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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