In between

Doors rarely seem to open
Even when I yank ones that I closed.
I am stuck in between.
Between endings and beginnings.
Between closed doors without open ones to go through.
Stuck in a purgatory.
What dross needs to be burned away?

Movie review: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo who? I confess I had no idea about the man in the movie’s title. I was interested in this movie because of the actors: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman. And the subject matter: The Communist witch hunt of the 1950s where people were blacklisted and their careers ruined.

I wasn’t disappointed in this movie. The acting is superb. And the storyline…well, in good Hollywood fashion, the good guys win in the end.

Dalton Trumbo was a famous movie screenwriter behind several successful movies. If the movie is to be believed, he was the most famous and highly paid screenwriter of the time. He also joined the Communist Party in 1943 and was an agitator for workers’ rights. But he wasn’t alone. He was joined by other screenwriters, producers, and directors with similar sentiments.

In 1947, they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about their Communist affiliations. They refused to answer. They were imprisoned for contempt of Congress. When they emerged at the end of their sentences, the so-called Hollywood Ten found themselves blacklisted. None were allowed to work in Hollywood.

The movie depicts how Trumbo got around this ban and ultimately helped end the blacklist some ten years or so after it started. In the intervening years, the blacklist took a toll on his family. To make ends meet, Trumbo approached a producer of B-rated movies about writing scripts for him without getting credit for the movie scripts. That way, he gets paid for work he does but skirts the blacklist. The producer was game.

To make enough money to survive at the low pay he was receiving, Trumbo had to produce an ungodly number of scripts. He became a non-stop screenwriter. Of course, this pace wasn’t sustainable. He took two tactics to solve the dilemma. He enlisted other blacklisted writers to write scripts and he commandeered his family to help with answering phone calls and delivering scripts.

The involvement of his family was anything but normal. Rather than living their lives as teenagers, his children were forced into the family business for their financial survival. The stress on the family was enormous.

The movie also touches on the stress felt by other writers, directors, and producers who were blacklisted. Some named names in front of the House committee for their own survival. Others tried to skirt the issue for as long as they could.

Trumbo wrote scripts, such as Roman Holiday, that other, non-blacklisted writers added their names to. Years later it came out that Trumbo actually wrote Roman Holiday and was eventually given the Oscar that it won in 1953.

The turning point in the movie was when Kirk Douglas shows up and asks Trumbo to rewrite a script for a movie he was acting in. That movie? Spartacus. Spartacus would go on to win awards. At the same time (according to the movie), the director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo to write the script for Exodus, which also went on to win awards.

Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger gave Trumbo screen credit for writing scripts. (Note: The breaking of the blacklist is a bit disputed. Others used blacklisted artists for movie before Spartacus and Douglas’s role in ending writers being blacklisted has been disputed.)

The movie also errs with a tidy version of history by implying that once the blacklist was broken everything went back to how it previously was. Writers went back to writing. Producers to producing. But things were not so tidy. In reality, some could never work again or work under their real names.

And to my surprise, the House Un-American Activities Committee did not disbanded until 1976. 1976. That seems incredibly late to me. How easy it is to forget the anti-Communist fear that gripped the US for much of the 20th century.

Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.