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- 12/01/12--10:59: _Ken Burns Interview
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- 01/10/13--13:16: _Progressives Score ...
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- 12/01/12--10:59: Ken Burns Interview
- 12/10/12--10:15: An Interview with Oliver Stone
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America’s preeminent television documentarian, Ken Burns, returned to the little -- and big -- screen in November with a proverbial bang. The two-part The Dust Bowl -- about what Burns calls “the greatest manmade environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States, if not the world” -- aired Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS. On Nov. 23 the theatrical release of The Central Park Five began in New York, where the tragic tale about the wrongful imprisonment of five Black and Latino teenagers for supposedly gang raping Tricia Meili, the Caucasian so-called Central Park Jogger, unfolded.
With The Central Park Fivethe prolific Burns returns to the recurring theme of race found in many of his made-for-TV documentaries, including 1990’s The Civil War, 1997’s Thomas Jefferson, 2001’s Jazz, 2004’s Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and the 11 episode Baseball, which aired in 1994 and 2010. In The Central Park Five this chronicler par excellence of U.S. history has, with David McMahon and Sarah Burns, co-made what may be his most contemporary doc. The riveting feature-length nonfiction film takes us from the vicious 1989 assault of the Central Park Jogger to the interrogation, arrest and conviction of what a racist press dubbed a “wolf pack.” Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam served hard time for this so-called “wilding” -- a crime they did not commit. In 2002 serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to brutally raping and beating Ms. Meili.
This resulted in the exoneration of the quintet of Harlemites. However, their $50 million civil lawsuit against the City of New York, NYPD and prosecutors has languished in the courts for almost a decade. And now Burns is involved in an epic First Amendment battle, refusing to handover outtakes and notes which City attorneys subpoenaed as The Central Park Five made the film festival rounds and neared release. On Nov. 7 Burns’s attorney filed a motion to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it, among other things, “fails to overcome the qualified reporter’s privilege that applies to these unpublished, non-confidential newsgathering materials under federal common law and the state Shield Law.”
The Progressive caught up with Burns at a Beverly Hills hotel; he was in L.A., along with his co-directors and three of the Central Park Five, to present the documentary about them during the AFI Fest at the Egyptian Theatre, where a sold-out crowd gave the doc, filmmakers and ex-defendants an enthusiastic standing ovation. In person the bearded Brooklyn-born Burns, who now lives in New Hampshire, dresses casually and is passionate about the topics in his work. He speaks much the same as his documentaries are told, in a studious, well thought out manner rich in details. Meanwhile, the 59-year-old filmmaker is at the top of his game, reportedly working on another seven documentaries, including films about Jackie Robinson, the Roosevelts and the Vietnam War.
Q: What does it say about race in America that 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation the Central Park Five are still experiencing what they are going through?
Ken Burns: The saddest news is that the progress is still incredibly slow. And here we are, in the early 21st century, and we’re still arguing over a case, a miscarriage of justice, that took place in April of 1989. And was compounded for 13 years until the real evidence came forward and we realized that those we had prosecuted were actually innocent -- those who had served out their full terms were actually innocent. And still a decade later we’re still trying to pretend like we didn’t find out what we found out. So, there’s a lot of work to be done since Abraham Lincoln suggested later in 1863 at Gettysburg that we “had a new birth of freedom.” That birth is taking a long time; the gestation is way too long.
Q: It seems that even if you make a movie about sports like Baseball, or a documentary about music, such as Jazz, race is a theme interwoven into most, if not all of your documentaries.
Burns: Most -- not all. And I don’t go looking for it; it’s always there. Because we were founded on this idea that “all men are created equal.” Yet the guy who wrote that owned other human beings. Thomas Jefferson didn’t see the hypocrisy, didn’t see the contradiction, and most importantly, never saw fit in his lifetime to free any of those human beings that he said ought to be free, with certain “inalienable rights,” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And so our American narrative is a constant dialogue with race. The Civil War, the most important event in our history, came because 4 million Americans in 1861 were owned by other Americans. Doesn’t sound right.
On the other hand, the only art form that is recognized as American-created around the world is an art form that was born in a community that had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land: That’s jazz. So, everywhere you look, race is around us. And we don’t look for it; it’s just there. If you’re going to do more than a superficial, cursory view of American history, whatever the subject is, usually you bump into race as a significant subtheme.
Q: Why did the Central Park Five originally confess?
Burns: They were interrogated for 30 hours. And you say, “Look Ray [Santana], you’re a good kid. We know you didn’t do it. We know you want to go home. But he’s saying, ‘you did it.’” You’re going, “Who’s he?” And he goes, “And if you just say that he did it it’ll be all right.” So he goes, “Well, okay, maybe [I] can do that.” And then all of a sudden [the interrogator] is saying, “You’ve got to make it believable, right?” So they want to put you closer and closer, and all of a sudden it’s a circular firing squad. They all wake up and they suddenly realized that they’ve implicated not only others, who they didn’t know, but themselves, out of self protection and just a desire to go home. Remember the jury member [in the film] who held out 10 days? What did he want? He just wanted to go home. Ten days? Thirteen years?... They just wanted to go home -- they’re kids, and they had no idea about Miranda [rights], they had no idea they could ask for a lawyer… Everyone would have confessed!... [False confession] is a science.
Q: Did you ask to interview the Central Park jogger?
Burns: Yes, I spoke to her two or three times. You have to understand that she has no memory of the events. The first people she met besides the medical team that saved her life were the cops and A.D.A.s [assistant district attorneys], who told her their version of what happened. And she spent 13 years of her life trying to repair this extraordinary damage done to her and was invested in that story, too. I think it’s hard for her to -- she went public about the second time of the vacation of the convictions, in her book she sort of amended it as now it’s sort of up in the air as to what really happened. So I think she’s -- I understood that she wouldn’t want to participate. I don’t understand why the A.D.A.s and the police on one level wouldn’t return phone calls even, give me the courtesy. When somebody did, they always hid behind the civil suit, saying, “Oh, we can’t talk about that.” In point of fact, they were unable to answer any of the questions we would have asked.
Q: How is the subpoena by NYC attorneys going?
Burns: We’re in the middle of it. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But we are not going to honor the subpoena as it is. We will have to go to court; I’ll let a judge tell me what I have to do, not the City of New York. It’s clearly a cynical delaying tactic in a civil suit that’s already been delayed nearly a decade. I mean, these guys suffered in an obvious tragedy for 13 years, with justice denied. Now it’s almost 10 more years of justice delayed, which we know is justice denied. And it seems very interesting, that interviews we conducted several years ago, that they should choose now as we’re in the process of going to Cannes and Telluride and Toronto and Montreal and Mill Valley and Vienna and AFI, suddenly, oh suddenly, now is the time to put a subpoena in front of us for all of our outtakes and notes.
Race is a huge part of this story… but at the end it’s a universal story about just human failing. That is to say all of us make mistakes; and you either own up to your mistakes or you don’t, as the [New York Times] journalist Jim Dwyer says in our film. And that’s what this is. This is a 13 year tragedy that now has become almost a 23-year-old tragedy because there are some cops and A.D.A.s who cannot stand admitting that they were wrong, because of what it might do to their careers or reputations. Never mind the fact that they stole the identities, the lives, of five kids, now men, who are clearly through the polygraph that cinema is, honorable human beings, honorable human beings.
Q: What do you want to say about race relations and racism in America today?
Burns: Well, it’s here. People have glossed it over, and said things like “birther” or “he’s a Muslim.” They would have used the “N” word a couple of generations ago. It’s still complicated, but we’ve also made progress. The person that they’re referring to happens to be the president of the United States, which a lot of people swore that they would, you know, die, rather than let that happen. And nothing’s happened; he’s proved to be an effective leader…
Q: Some of those people are “the birthers of a nation.”
Burns: Well, it’s not of a nation. What they reflect are the oldest thing: If you can’t be honest with your racism, then you disguise it, you call it something else. You say, “Oh, he’s not really an American.” You start a “birther” movement. Because you’re delegitimizing -- this is what Jim Crow did, this is what slavery did. It’s the same thing… In France, when we were at the Cannes Film Festival, they asked: “Could this happen today?” And we said: “Well, there’s a Black kid named Treyvon Martin who’s just died -- and yeah, he’d be alive if he wasn’t Black.”
Q: We recently witnessed in New York City, where you’re from, this tremendous catastrophe. Your other new documentary, broadcast shortly after Superstorm Sandy, is The Dust Bowl.
Burns: Strangely enough, it is about people dying because they didn’t have any water, as opposed to people dying from too much water.
Q: Although much of the Midwest has had a drought.
Burns: With climate change, we are suffering intensely from a new set of algorhythms that are sending us storms of the century every couple of years, instead of every 100 years. And droughts to accompany that, as well.
Q: In The Dust Bowl, did you find manmade reasons for this environmental disaster?
Burns: Yes. The Dust Bowl is the greatest manmade environmental catastrophe in the history of the United States, if not the world. We turned over an area greater than the size of Ohio of grasslands, grasses that evolved over thousands of years that should have stayed there. In very marginal areas that the earliest European explorers had said was wholly unsuitable to a society based on agriculture, as the United States is based on. They turned over this dirt, and they had some wet years, and they turned over more dirt and then when the normal weather patterns came back and the constant winds were blowing you had dust storms. And not just a handful of dust storms; hundreds of dust storms for 10 years, an apocalypse of almost biblical proportions, where we moved in one day, in one storm, more dirt than it took the 10 years of excavation of the Panama Canal. A storm that blew dust all the way across -- settled inches in Chicago, in Detroit. Franklin Washington went with his fingertip across the desk in the Oval Office and came up with Oklahoma. And the next day ships out at sea were covered with a patina of dust.
This is dust that killed their crops; dust that killed their cattle; and more importantly, killed their children, with this phenomenon called dust pneumonia. This whole panoply of respiratory diseases that people started getting sprang up, that would take the youngest or oldest of a family, and sometimes somebody strapping and in good health. It was almost unbelievable in its scope and shape and it is filled with cautionary tales about human hubris, about greed, about always thinking that the real estate bubble is going to last. It’s about, obviously, lessons today about climate change.
Q: Was the Dust Bowl caused in part by climate change?
Burns: No, not at all. There were cycles of drought and more wet periods, but this was an area that didn’t need to be turned over. And we’ve helped to mitigate it by putting 1,000 million straws into the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a not sustainable reservoir -- it’s mining water. And when that runs out, you have the problem of the Dust Bowl coming right back. Right now, technology is permitting us to continue to wash, with borrowed water, which will never be replaced. Keep that topsoil on it. But when that water runs out, when the Ogallala runs dry, which it will do -- some Cassandras say it’s 20 years, Pollyannas say it’s 50 years. But in 50 years, that’s the lifetime of our children and our grandchildren. It’s going to run out and it may be that the Southern Plains of the United States will turn into, as they feared in the Dust Bowl, into an American Sahara.
Q: What was the response of FDR’s New Deal to the Dust Bowl?
Burns: Yeah; what was so extraordinary is that one of the causes of this disaster was the United States government, which had encouraged homesteading in the last unsettled area in the Continental United States. But it was the government that could be the only entity that could possibly offset the devastation that Mother Nature was wreaking. Either the surplus commodities programs that kept people alive; the W.P.A. [Works Progress Administration] which gave people jobs and built highways, bridges, airports and high schools that are used to this day. But also, they planted hundreds of millions of trees in shelter belts, they convinced farmers to try new ways of plowing, of using an old fashioned kind of plow that made a deeper cut. To contour plow; to rotate the crops. They bought backland and turned it into grassland. They were the agency of a great deal of the salvation of this. But it was not climate change then; it was just some wet years that fooled people into thinking that maybe they could make a go of it, but they couldn’t.
Q: Discuss the use of Pare Lorentz’s 1936 film in The Dust Bowl?
Burns: The United States government, in addition to all these programs, also initiated an amazing documentary project, sending through the Farm Security Administration hundreds of photographers out into the field to catch the human cost of not only the Depression, but the Dust Bowl. They also underwrote the first documentary films, like [Lorentz’s] The Plow that Broke the Plains, which is about the Dust Bowl and the causes of it, and this was man-created: The plow that broke the plains.
Q: There was the famous John Steinbeck novel and film, The Grapes of Wrath.
Burns: There’s conventional wisdom that says: “Oh, I remember that Dorothea Lange photograph of the migrant farm worker. I’ve seen a picture of a storm -- this is The Grapes of Wrath.” Well, The Grapes of Wrath is about the Joad family, which were tenant farmers in eastern Oklahoma on the border with Arkansas. They had to leave their land because of the Depression and the collapse of the cotton crop and join that great Diaspora that moved to California. And most of the novel takes place in California. Well, we visit California a couple of times in our series, but in The Dust Bowl we focus mainly on the landowners in western Oklahoma, in the panhandle, as well as the panhandle of Texas and southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. And that is the geographical center of the Dust Bowl, a place once called “no man’s land,” because it was so inhospitable to settlers and to homesteaders. But we did it, none the less; and benefited from some wet years, people made some money. When you have a good year you plant more; and when you have a bad year, you plant more, and that just leaves more soil exposed to blow when those ever present winds blow -- and they do blow.
…Although there are no The Grapes of Wrath clips in our documentary, we tell an important story: One of the people who was helping in the migrant labor camps in the Central Valley who’d come from the Dust Bowl and helped to communicate with those folks, she and her boss had brought down John Steinbeck and he was so devastated by what he saw he said, “I’m going to go back and blow the lid off this.” And what it was was The Grapes of Wrath.
Q: Does Woody Guthrie figure in your documentary?
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based screenwriter and film historian/critic who wrote the script First Landing, about the Hawaiians who occupied Kahoolawe island to stop the U.S. military from bombing it for target practice. Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes are currently writing their third book for Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing about Hawaii movies and TV shows. Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States, a co-founder of HollywoodProgressive.com and of the James Agee Cinema Circle, an international left-leaning group of critics who annually award the Progies for Best Progressive Films and Filmmakers.
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Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s cinematic scourge of the status quo, is back with what might well be his most ambitious work. The Oscar-winning writer/director of radical counter-narratives that focused on death squads in Central America with Salvador, the Vietnam War with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, high finance with Wall Street and its sequel, the Kennedy assassination with JFK, and the presidencies of Tricky Dick and Bush Junior with Nixon and W., is now taking on the annals of empire through the nonfiction medium.
The truth be told, Stone’s documentary series and book The Untold History of the United States sets the record straight about the propagandistic myths surrounding the role America has played in global events with an unauthorized, alternative, independent vision. In the process, as he shouts, “The empire has no clothes!” Stone rethinks, recasts, and reframes imperial America.
Along with his 750-page companion book (Simon & Schuster) co-authored by historian Peter Kuznick, Stone’s ongoing 10-part series, airing on Showtime through January, is exposing the unexamined assumptions and main myths of 20th century and early 21st century U.S. history. Stone dares to investigate: Who really defeated Nazi Germany? Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki have to be nuked? Who started the Cold War? With the scope and sweep of a long view of America, The Untold History of the United States distills criticism of current Washington policy with its final chapter, Obama: Managing a Wounded Empire. Along the way, Stone rescues long lost unsung heroes -- including a vice president, a nuclear physicist, a Soviet political officer aboard a nuclear submarine who likely prevented World War III -- from obscurity and returns them to their proper places in this chronicle of our times.
I interviewed Stone in his Santa Monica offices, with volumes of annotated history texts and books by authors such as Chalmers Johnson, covering a tabletop and lined up against a wall. The wear and tear of creating the 10-hour The Untold History of the United States TV series was clearly taking its toll on the Vietnam veteran.
But Stone took time out from completing episodes nine and ten to talk with The Progressive Magazine about what might be his literary testament and film magnum opus. Like a filmic Indiana Jones, Stone relentlessly unearths what lies underneath, observing that it’s his “fortune and destiny” to be not only a storyteller, but more importantly, a truth-teller -- the powers-that-be and their ballyhooers be damned.
Q: Since this is for The Progressive Magazine, I thought it was appropriate to ask you about one of the main figures you’re rescuing from the obscurity of history in your documentary series, the man who ran for president on the Progressive Party’s ticket in 1948. Tell us about Henry Wallace, and why he plays such a prominent role in The Untold History of the United States?
Oliver Stone: Primarily we concentrated on the 1944 campaign, which is where Wallace really truly had enormous power. He was the popular favorite, overwhelmingly, for the Democratic vice presidency. He was bumped by the bosses from Roosevelt’s ticket. I think going into the convention he had 65% of Democratic electorate on his side. Harry Truman was a nobody at that point at 2%, and it was all reversed at the convention, with back office politics and last minute bargains. And that is what interests us, because the whole fate of the world would have been somewhat altered by that event.
The reason why I got involved in this History in the first place was because of the atomic bomb and because of the role it has played in our lives. And that was what brought to my attention by Peter Kuznick, who was teaching a course in my films at American University, but was also a founder of the department of nuclear studies at that university. In talking about the atomic bomb, Peter had told me the story of this Henry Wallace. Well, I never really knew much about him, except for the ’48 election, but briefly. I knew that that Norman Mailer had supported him and that a lot of the intellectuals and progressives had. But I didn’t know much.
But it was his link to the atomic bomb -- because Wallace was the [FDR] cabinet member who knew most of the scientific theory and was most in touch with the scientists. Peter had written a book about the 1930s and science, so he knew a lot about that subject; I guess he came upon Wallace that way. Wallace was also a geneticist, and actually built a Hi-Bred Corn Company that was one of the most successful capitalist ventures ever, and was sold by his heirs to du Pont for $8 billion in the 1990s. So, it’s an interesting, weird story.
Wallace was a compassionate visionary. And Roosevelt knew that -- Eleanor Roosevelt loved him, and that side of the party loved him. But he pissed off some people by his honest assessment of England, Great Britain and the British empire. But all evidence leads us to believe that Roosevelt had the same fears of being taken by the British empire once again. We quote that in the film: “We’re not fighting World War II as we did World War I for Britain to reabsorb its colonies and to continue exploiting people.” That was not Roosevelt’s vision. Roosevelt was going to work out a vision of the world peace under the guidance, the tutelage of the U.N.
So we believe that Wallace, if he had not been bumped, given Roosevelt’s health, would definitely have been president, instead of Harry Truman, who was a small man, small mind, equivalent to George W. Bush at the time, with very little experience, and very much given to be mentally aggressive against the Soviets and to cotton to the British empire. So instead of it being an equal, tripartite alliance, Truman, unlike Wallace, took us in the direction of being very anti-Soviet, very pro-Churchill. Churchill had always been very anti-Soviet. And this continued and he got away with it. So there was a collapse of power, there was a vacuum at the head of the American presidency at a very key moment.
The Wallace story is threaded through the first four chapters. Much to Wallace’s credit, he continued to play a role after he lost the nomination. He did serve Truman as commerce secretary, until ’46, when he was fired by Truman for giving a speech at Madison Square Garden the week before I was born in New York City about a few blocks away. [Laughs.] He was the main voice left for peace; the peace party, so to speak. He was the only Roosevelt visionary left. Truman went towards the direction of all the people that Roosevelt had ignored.
I just want to say one more thing about Wallace. When Henry Luce was talking about “this is the American century,” it was Henry Wallace who gave that speech that really shook it up in ’41 and said, “This is the century of the common man.” And he said that bluntly, so he made enemies from the get-go with all the people who were the pols, so to speak. He mentioned the French Revolution, the Latin American Revolution -- which few people ever do, Bolivar, amazing revolution -- he also mentioned the Russian Revolution and the American Revolution. “The march of the common peoples of the world.” And he was vice president, so saying that was like -- a major speech. He took on Churchill, and said things like, Churchill was overly fond of the British empire and so forth. He said this whole concept of Anglo-Saxon superiority bugged him. He was a man who was not a racist at all. He was a man who promoted George Washington Carver, he promoted the contribution of Blacks, as well as all races, to science.
He was not your ordinary politician. He believed everyone can contribute. He believed in equal rights for women, way early; civil rights, etc. This is a man who’s like 20 years ahead of his time and flying in the face of convention. There were many progressives in America -- we mustn’t forget that. He comes from a long line, Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, the communists, many of the liberals who became communists and socialists in this country in the 1930s.
The whole concept of progress goes back to not just to our revolution, but go to the 1870s, during the industrial barons, the “Era of the 400, the Gilded Age.” We have progressive movements everywhere, all across the country, huge fights, union wars, in the 1870s, ’80s, ’90s, it’s in Colorado, it’s in that movie  Heaven’s Gate. You see it going all the way through World War I, all the resistance to Wilson going to war. Debs was thrown into jail for six years. So, it’s not like Wallace came out of nowhere. Unfortunately, we had to cut those early two chapters, which showed you the tradition from which Wallace came. But Wilson violated all that by throwing people into jail, prosecuting the Espionage Act. If you dissented against World War I you were a bad guy in America, all of a sudden.
Q: You indicate that had Wallace continued as FDR’s vice president, Japan may not have been A-bombed. Why?
Stone: Great story. Again, American history books in high school level -- not college levels, because lots of serious scholars get it right -- but they don’t at the high school level, and I know this because I’ve checked a few of them. I have a whole bunch of them here. [Laughs, pointing to texts lined on his office floor.] They don’t really reference the debate and what all the witnesses we put in the film were saying is that Japan was about to surrender. They’re economically prostrate, by the terror bombing that had gone on for months; Curtis LeMay was in charge of it. More people were killed in the Tokyo bombing than were killed in Hiroshima. For the Japanese it didn’t make a difference; they didn’t know it was an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; they didn’t know what hit them; they were numb. They would have fought, because they were a fighter -- to save the emperor.
But when the Russians declared war on August 9 -- which was a deal Stalin made with Roosevelt at Yalta, that he’d enter the [Pacific] war three months after the Nazi war was over, Stalin kept to his word. He moved his million men over to the east, and they demolished the Japanese Kwantung Army, which was an elite army in Manchuria, and they were moving on the island, towards Japan. They were already in the Kurils, I think they were going into Korea. The Japanese were horrified by this concept of the Soviets overrunning Japan and violating the homeland, including the Hokkaido Island. And they knew without a doubt, because of the reputation of the Soviets, having destroyed Germany and what they did to the German people -- I’m not saying it was for right or wrong, a good thing, but the Soviets hated the Germans, so they did horrible things in Germany. No question. Not so much to Eastern Europe, but they hated the Nazis, and they went after their women, and there were rapes… looting. The looting was because they were broke, They were demolished by this war. They had no food -- the soldiers were starving…The Japanese are horrified by that. They knew, because the Bolsheviks shot the czar in 1918, that the Russians would not put up with the emperor for one second. There’d be no issue of saving the emperor. They knew they could get better terms from the Americans. Truman knew this too. Truman sends a telegram talking about the “Jap emperor wants peace.” He knows U.S. troops can’t even get into the position to invade Japan for three more months until November. That was always the plan. If everything had just taken its course the Russians would have been in Japan way before November; they would have probably been there in September.
So, everyone knew that. But it becomes very clear if you take all the evidence that Truman wants to make a poker game point with the Russians, “I got the bomb. This is meant for you.” This is a symbol to Russia, telling them not to get any big ideas after World War II is over.
There was no need to drop the bomb. But there was no consideration of the Japanese, because they were pictured in American media and culturally as fanatics, as cockroaches. We showed a series of cartoons. I think he would have hesitated to drop this on the German people. But because the Japanese were considered -- and we know Truman’s record on race, he had a very low opinion of Asians. He didn’t have any qualms. In the Edward Murrow interview that you see, he says, “I didn’t lose a night’s sleep.” But by playing that card, and announcing to the world that we could be as barbaric as the Germans and the Japanese, he lowered the moral discourse. If we’d lost the war he would have been indictable for war crimes. What we did to civilian populations -- and what the Germans did too, and the Japanese too, and the British -- in Europe, bombing the cities, and especially bombing Japan, was horrible.
Q: The firebombing of Dresden, Tokyo and elsewhere, the A-bombing of Japan and the internment of people of Japanese ancestry in America, the majority of them citizens, is what we did when we were the good guys.
Stone:…The internment, I think there were other ways to do it. Dresden -- Churchill himself said, “Are we beasts? Have we gone too far.” Dresden was mostly filled with refugees running from the Red Army. Economically, it didn’t make sense, or militarily. We didn’t hurt the Germans to the degree we thought we did. The Red Army is what was killing them. It was chewing ’em up, and they were coming towards Germany. It was the Red Army that destroyed the German military machine -- not the bombing.
Q:Untold History makes a strong case that it was the Soviets -- not the British, Americans, Canadians, at D-Day or in North Africa – that turned the tide of the war.
Stone: It’s a huge point. You have to argue World War II again. On film you can do things that sometimes you can’t see in a book. For example, in our chapter two, you’ll see very clearly on film the Red Army is moving after Stalingrad -- which is the climactic battle of World War II, not D-Day. Stephen Ambrose, in his triumphalist narrative, says, “D-Day, the climactic battle of World War II.” I love it. But the truth is, by 1944, the Soviets are well into Eastern Europe and moving towards Germany, and clearly winning. They won at Stalingrad -- they beat them back, for the first time, really a major upset for the Germans. Then at Kursk, the tank battle, they again triumphed. By this time, the Soviets were producing their own airplanes, which were superior to the German Luftwaffe, and they were producing better tanks. The Russians themselves -- they took lend-lease, the U.S. helped them -- but they also rebuilt behind the Ural Mountains. So they had reconstituted themselves and were sweeping -- so by June ’44, we cut from the Russians moving east, and we show on the maps where they are, to this D-Day invasion, which is finally, finally, the promised second front. It should have been June 6, ’43, to make a real difference. It was a well-done invasion; the armada was amazing. The casualties were not extensive compared to the amount of casualties the Russians were taking on the Eastern front. They lost far too many men.
The Soviets were putting all their weight beyond destroying Germany; that was what was required. They had been saved by the Japanese going south to take the colonies -- if the Japanese had attacked the Soviets at the same time it would have been over for the Soviets. But apparently, Hitler and Japan never could see eye to eye, never could communicate. And apparently, Hitler had a bad attitude about -- also was a racist. That’s an interesting side story -- it’s a big story.
Q:Untold History makes the point that while the Soviets fought 200 German divisions, the Americans and British combined fought 10.
Stone: Up until ’44, after D-Day that changed. After ’44, the battle was going to be bloody but it was over. The Soviets lost 80,000 troops taking Berlin… Earlier in the war Churchill had been a proponent of not going into an early second front and convinced the Americans to, what [Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C.] Marshall called “periphery peck” along North Africa… then go into Italy, the southern belly of the German fortress. And the Italian campaign was not a success -- more American troops were lost than ever punished the Germans. It was a slow, grinding, cruel diversion. And of course, Churchill got back into Greece in ’44, and dive-bombed the Communist resistance to the Nazis. It was an ugly story, Greece. Churchill also wanted to go to the Balkans, basically he wanted to make his way over to Greece, past the Mediterranean, into the Persian Gulf area, ’cause that was very important to oil, the needs of Britain, as well as India, the crown jewel of the British empire. And Singapore -- don’t forget, he got Singapore back. Churchill said himself in a famous quote: “I have not become prime minister to preside over the dismemberment of the British empire.” That was his motive.
Q: You use film feature film clips in your documentary.
Stone: We have no talking heads, so there’s not that boredom. We’re trying to persuade through the flow of imagery with music, hopefully a narration that doesn’t hector, that allows you to think for yourself. But also lays in ideas as we go. The facts are indisputable, I think; but the interpretation, we’re gentle about it. It comes on as we go, that interpretation of those facts. Obviously, because we’re going against this mythos that has been created. It’s a tough one; we’re making radical points, as you know.
And we cut to D-Day from the Russians. Then we cut one month later to the [Democratic] convention in Chicago, which nobody knows about. So that to me is what the movies can do with history -- it can show an audience in succession: the Russians sweeping Eastern Europe, the D-Day invasion and the Wallace convention, which is actually going to contribute to changing history far more than D-Day ever will. But because we’ve done 100 movies about D-Day, and 50 books, and Tom Brokaw and Steve Ambrose and Spielberg and all these people have made a fortune out of glorifying that invasion, it’s completely a tilted history. It gives American school kids a skewed sense of what really happened.
Q: You provide a counter-narrative, like JFK.
Stone: Yeah. It is. A counter-narrative [laughs]. My fortune and my destiny. We use movie clips where we think appropriate to break the tedium of perhaps always looking at archival footage, but I find that fascinating. You’ll note the pace of the archival footage is pretty fast; we’re cutting at a more contemporary pace to keep the interest of younger people, hopefully.
Q: One of the clips you use is from [1939’s] Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Stone: Oh yeah, many clips we use. ’Cause that was embodiment to me of the spirit of that time. Frank Capra, who I thought in the 1930s represented very much the egalitarian point of view in his thinking.
Q: If I had to compare you to a Hollywood great from the Golden Age, it would be Capra. Not only because your stick up for the common man, like Capra did, but also because he made documentaries. He directed the Why We Fight series, a wonderful WWII agitprop series, riling up the home front, why we had to fight for democracy against fascism.
Stone: Yes, we used a clip [from 1943’s The Battle of Russia] of that on the Russian front, around the Battle of Stalingrad. It showed you the resistance of the Russian people. You see good Jewish actors from Hollywood in it, too. But there were other clips, too. [Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 Alexander] Nevsky we use because of the historic German-Russian conflict going back to the medieval ages, to imply that Hitler had this mystic belief in the Teutonic crusade. And the old Russian spirit of Nevsky, which of course fought against the invaders. So that seemed to be so apropos. And it was a chance of course to pay homage to my own profession. A lot of the film clips we use are sometimes in counterpoint, like we use Black Legion on chapter four, which is an Archie Mayo  relic but with Humphrey Bogart playing the pro-American guy. And we use [1956’s] Invasion of the Body Snatchers to suggest the state of mind of [Defense Secretary James] Forrestal, before he committed suicide. “They’re coming to get -- they’re here, they’re here!” In the movie, the guy really does know that extraterrestrials are on Earth, but we imply to people who are not so paranoid [laughs], Forrestal seemed like he was overdoing it in his extremism.
Q: Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of Mr. Smith, was a member of the Communist Party and eventually cited for contempt of Congress.
Stone: Oh god, so many of the people were targeted who were the most humanistic. There are so many good people that were graylisted as a result of -- graylisted is you don’t even know you’re off the list. The way the Hollywood bosses behaved was disgusting. Even Capra was accused. The time was tough after World War II. For example, Henry Wallace, the ’48 campaign -- I don’t doubt for one second that he was above it all. But the smears on him, as a Communist-influenced dupe of Moscow. Here was a man who had his own ideas, and he always said, “We should have a peaceful competition with Moscow. They are going to come more towards some of the freedoms we enjoy, and we are going to go more towards the social justice they enjoy.” And I thought that was brilliant -- but he was completely smeared by Truman, Forrestal, the FBI.
Of course, he had some Communists in there. But what people don’t realize is that Wallace had a visceral hatred of redbaiting. And that was the beauty of the man. “Okay, we’re not going to play that game.” Redbaiting becomes one of the ugliest things that ever goes on -- it still goes on in our country. It went on with Bush; it still goes on with people who dissent.
Q: You got slammed because of your counter-narrative in JFK. Is Untold History getting attacked by similar media hacks?
Stone: Yes, yes, for sure. We got slammed by the usual suspects. I mean, I don’t think they even see the series. Whether it’s New York Post editorials, or the Ronald Radosh, the Weekly Standard types. The pro-empire liberals, the Hillary Clinton branch, Sean Willentz.
I think anti-empire liberals are always having this issue. We’re always being attacked by pro-empire liberals. ’Cause pro-empire liberals are the ones who voted for Iraq in 200. The Left has betrayed itself; in the old days they called them “Cold War liberals.” And John Kennedy was one of them, but he changed. So there’s always the ability to change. A lot of these liberals who voted for the war, including The New York Times and The New Yorker, those types, they have said it was a “mistake.” But they never quite get it, they never -- yeah, it’s a luxurious mistake. We have the right to trash Iraq, but we can say, “It was a mistake.” We can say, “We should have known better, we were lied to.” All those things. But that doesn’t change the crime.
It all goes back to the atomic bomb, in my thinking, which gave us the “right.” Once you take that right and you say, “I am god, and I have that right to do that,” you start thinking like an empire. I just don’t get it, I don’t get why liberals who are so smart can be so stupid at the same time.
Q: Is “American exceptionalism” the U.S. equivalent of the “master race” theory?
Stone: Yes, it is, because you don’t think about it. You don’t think about it. I lived 35 years of my life, maybe more, not questioning our rights. [In a mock nasty tone:] “Okay, we did it, we did that, we did this, we did that, but they’re worse. What would they have done? What would China do now? What would Russia do now?” [Returns to normal voice:] And you live on this fucking diet of blaming others.
The reason I do think in 1946, the year I was born, we made such a huge deal out of Stalin, and made much more out of his existence, we made him a threat, the big enemy of the week, the enemy of the next 40 years, was because communism was a convenient distraction for the upper class, the elite, to suppress the labor unions. And the labor unions would always be associated with communism or socialism or the right to a better life, because that was the basis of the revolution. Anti-communism has been used as a bogeyman for our anti-labor policies in this country.
Everyone who hated communism basically supported Hitler because he wanted Hitler to fucking win in Russia and wipe out the communists. Hitler was loved by many for having destroyed the Communist Party in Germany.
Q: What’s your next project?
Stone: Oh, I don’t know. Ed, I’m in the middle of it. I hope you realize this has sapped me. This is almost five years; January is the fifth year. So, I want to finish; I’m very proud of it. It’s an accumulation of the themes of my films. I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know as much as I did before I started this. To me it’s like going to a college graduate course in history, so it’s been very good for me. At the same time it’s exhausting and documentaries have a limited viewability. I’m very proud of it; we did well, so far. We’re in our fourth week, and the ratings are far higher than what Showtime expected. A million people we know are watching this series every week; they show a few times a week. A million people is quite good; but that’s without knowing all the DVR numbers.
Q: Is the American empire sustainable?
Stone: It is, in a sense, militarily, with this electronic barrier, or space shield, which we’ll have by 2020. You can keep going with pure military might. Sustainable in a longer term moral sense -- I doubt it. I don’t know that you can have a tyranny over the rest of mankind for very long.
Q: How about economically?
Stone: Well, that one’s up to the Chinese. They have much more economic say in that than we do.
Q: Is the U.S. on a collision course with China?
Stone: No, no -- only if we make it so. They don’t have a history of foreign aggression. They really don’t. They stayed for centuries now -- they have a much longer history than we do… They have one foreign base -- we have 800-plus. Every society is turbulent now; I’m not going to say for one second it’s an ideal state -- it isn’t. They don’t have the concepts of law -- I’m not sure that we do either anymore. Because certainly the law has reached a place where… we have not set a standard of law in our country, when we have illegal detention.
Q: The U.S. empire’s economy apparently generates climate change. We see that coming back with Hurricane Sandy. It almost seems like karmic retribution.
Stone: I’d simply say Al Gore knew about this. We really started to know about this in the 1990s. Rachel Carson, beautiful story, in the 1960s, and we’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not convenient. It’s easier to get elected on the idea of jobs and job security. Money, money, money. Money has ruined many an empire. Perhaps it will be the bane of this empire -- the love of money.
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Since 1915, slavery -- and the struggle against it -- has been at the heart of some of filmdom’s greatest productions that often snare Oscar gold, created by top talents ranging from showmen to artistes to blockbuster filmmakers to the Hollywood Ten. The buying and selling of human flesh, and the resistance to it, has appeared onscreen in various forms, but motion picture human bondage appears primarily in five film genres, always reflecting their own times.
Ancient Epoch Epics
Ancient history has provided fertile ground for moviedom’s depictions of slavery. Cecil B. DeMille directed the biblical epic “The Ten Commandments” as a 1923 black and white silent film, then as the beloved 1956 VistaVision remake, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as pharaoh. Forced, unpaid labor is often slavery’s raison d’etre; the Exodus saga of enchained Hebrews “way down in Egypt’s land” building Rameses’ pyramids is the quintessential tale of brutal bondage. With its special effects parting of the Red Sea, “The Ten Commandments” is the archetypal liberation story, resonating in segregated 1950s America, as Rosa Parks literally refused to take a backseat to “whitey” and Martin Luther King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Talk about “let my people go!”
Heston returned, chains and all, as another enslaved Jew in 1959’s remake of a different silent classic, “Ben-Hur,” co-written by Gore Vidal. Its memorable galley-slave and chariot sequences, with Heston drag racing Stephen Boyd’s centurion, scored the future NRA prez an Academy Award. “Ben-Hur” won 11 of those coveted golden statuettes, including Best Picture and Best Director (William Wyler). Like “Commandments,” it could be interpreted as commenting on the state of Israel’s birth. “Ben Hur” was remade as a TV mini-series in 2010.
With valiant gladiators fighting to the death for the amusement of Rome’s patricians and plebians, the Roman Empire is the setting for numerous slave productions. There have been eight versions of “Quo Vadis?” since 1902; the most popular is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 epic with Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero – not to be outdone by Malcolm McDowell in 1979’s “Caligula,” based on Vidal’s novel. In 2000 Oscar gave thumbs up to Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” as Best Picture, and Russell Crowe as Best Actor for his Maximus.
But the best silver screen sandal, sword, and toga epic is Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 “Spartacus.” The narrator opens saying: “Even at the zenith of her pride and power, the Republic lay fatally stricken with a disease called human slavery. The age of the dictator was at hand...” Kirk Douglas stars as the gladiator who rallies the 120,000-man slave army that almost defeats Laurence Olivier’s legions, nearly toppling the Roman Empire around 71 B.C.
Woody Strode as African slave Draba is executed and hanged for refusing to kill Spartacus in the ring – referencing American race relations and lynching. Spartacus/ Douglas expresses the gospel according to the downtrodden: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.”
After the slave rebellion has been vanquished, the Romans offer the captured insurgents a deal: hand over their leader and live, or face mass crucifixion. Douglas rises to turn himself in and spare his beaten men, but Antoninus (Tony Curtis) proclaims, “I’m Spartacus!” followed by the other rebels, who also declare they’re “Spartacus.”
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, known for humanistic, anti-fascist scripts, was among Tinseltown’s highest paid screenwriters during Hollywood’s Golden Age, writing classics such as 1944’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Trumbo adapted “Spartacus” from the novel by his fellow blacklisted ex-Red, Howard Fast, who was persecuted by Sen. Joe McCarthy. In 1947, Trumbo became one of the Hollywood Ten, leftists refusing to inform on other progressives when summoned to Washington to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The studios blacklisted the “unfriendly” witnesses, who were cited for contempt of Congress and imprisoned.
After Trumbo was freed, he wrote scripts under pseudonyms, winning a 1957 Oscar under an assumed name. With “Spartacus,” Kirk Douglas played his greatest role –offscreen -- successfully insisting that Trumbo receive screen credit, helping to end Hollywood’s blacklist. The onscreen slaves’ refusal to inform on Spartacus is Trumbo’s statement against “naming names.” And like the other historical slave epics, “Spartacus” reflected the 1950s/60s Civil Rights movement, which artists like Trumbo supported.
In Richard Lester’s 1966 comedy, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Zero Mostel plays Pseudolus, whom Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers) calls: “The lyingest, cheatingest, sloppiest slave in all Rome!” What makes Pseudolus such a conniver? When Hero (Michael Crawford) tells him, “People do not go around freeing slaves every day,” Pseudolus cracks: “Be the first. Start a fashion.” Pseudolus is motivated by his all-too-human desire to be free, master of his own destiny, something Mostel – a Jew blacklisted during the HUAC/McCarthy era – related to. (African American comedienne Whoopi Goldberg played Pseudolus in 1997’s Broadway revival.)
Film’s fascination with ancient slavery continues. The TV mini-series “Spartacus” aired in 2004, and an ongoing, blood-spattered separate sexy series, “Spartacus: War of the Damned,” appears on the Starz cable network. In Mel Gibson’s 2006 “Apocalypto,” enslaved Mayans are sacrificed by pagan priests. 2006’s “300” depicts the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, pitting Spartans against a Persian Army bent on enslaving Greek city-states. HBO’s 2005--2007 series “Rome” featured episodes directed by Michael Apted.
The African Slave Trade
Ironically, while Greeks and Romans spoke of democracy and republics for themselves, they also owned slaves. As did Americans, and the “peculiar institution” is portrayed in some of Tinseltown’s biggest boffo box office hits – although not always authentically. When a co-author of this article asked Chris Rock – who directed, co-wrote and starred in 2003’s “Head of State” as America’s first Black president -- how Hollywood depicted slaves, he replied: “Not really good.”
The comedian/filmmaker apparently meant D.W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” and 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” Both blockbusters portrayed contented banjo strumming, watermelon chomping “darkies” enjoying antebellum plantation life until the Civil War upset the South’s “natural” order. During Reconstruction white knight/night riders (Klansmen in Griffith’s despicable epic) help restore white supremacy by returning newly freed, uppity Blacks to their “proper” place: The yoke of Jim Crow.
At a private screening of “I Think I Love My Wife,” Rock, whose humor lampoons racism, said the Black director of 1996’s “The Great White Hype,” Reginald Hudlin, “wanted to make a movie about the Middle Passage. White studio executives asked: ‘Why do the slaves want to be free? What’s their motivation?’ The film never got made,” Rock acidly observed. (Hudlin might have responded with a Lincoln quip: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”)
At the screening Louis C.K., who co-wrote Rock’s 2007 marital comedy, added that Steven Spielberg’s 1997 “Amistad” was a movie dealing with the horrific transshipment of Blacks from Africa to America that did get made, but noted, “‘Amistad’ is about a white guy. Matthew McConaughey drank and went to court,” where he and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams defended Africans led by Cinque (Djimon Hounsou), who’d commandeered a slave ship. The 1993 indie “Sankofa” also exposed the Middle Passage’s horrors.
Not all Tinseltown productions about America’s peculiar institution are peculiar. According to Rock, “Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ is probably the best.” (Haley also co-authored Malcolm X’s autobiography.) During the broadcast of the 1977 mini-series, 66% of the nation’s TVs were tuned to the tale of Kunta Kinte’s kin and their journey towards jubilee, triggering a trend in genealogical research.
Hollywood’s John Brown, the most militant Caucasian abolitionist, is usually portrayed as a lunatic. In director John Cromwell’s 1940 “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” Raymond Massey played Honest Abe, while Cromwell himself appeared in an uncredited cameo as John Brown. (Cromwell went on to be blacklisted during the HUAC/McCarthy era; his son, James Cromwell, is now one of Hollywood’s most outspoken progressives.) Massey went from portraying the Great Emancipator to playing the abolitionist, depicting Brown as a madman in both 1940’s “Sante Fe Trail” and 1955’s “Seven Angry Men.” According to conventional (Confederate) wisdom, any white who took up arms to free Blacks must have been insane. But history arguably proved Brown to be 19th century America’s most logical white man, as it took the bloodiest war in U.S. history to abolish slavery. In 1964, when asked if whites could join the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X paid tribute to the anti-slavery guerrilla, responding: “If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him.”
In 1957’s “Band of Angels,” upon the death of her debt-ridden father, Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) -- a plantation owner’s daughter raised as white -- discovers her mother was a slave. Amanda is sold at a New Orleans slave auction to Hamish Bond, played by an aging Clark Gable, reprising a role similar to “Gone with the Wind’s” Rhett Butler. “Band Of Angels” features African-American actor Sidney Poitier in an early important film role as Gable’s educated plantation slave, Rau-Ru, who runs away at the outbreak of the Civil War to join the Union Army a third of a century before Denzel Washington joined an all-Black regiment and won an Oscar in 1989’s “Glory.” A key reflective moment in a film full of Hollywood stereotypes and Old South romanticism has Gable stating that white injustice to black people will last a long time, but that justice will come, taking 100 years. Ironically, “Band Of Angels” was directed by Raoul Walsh, who 42 years earlier had played Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, in a key scene in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Blacklisted talents, long devoted to social justice and racial equality, returned to the screen with anti-slavery sagas. John Berry directed 1959’s “Tamango,” with Dorothy Dandridge, and the Hollywood Ten’s Herbert Biberman – who’d directed 1944’s anti-nazi “The Master Race” and 1954’s pro-labor, pro-Chicano, and pro-women’s rights film “Salt of the Earth.” Biberman helmed 1969’s “Slaves,” starring Ossie Davis. And Muhammad Ali played an ex-slave elected to the Senate in 1979’s made-for-TV-movie “Freedom Road,” based on Howard Fast’s novel.
Marlon Brando considered 1969’s “Burn!” -- about anti-colonial slave revolts on a Caribbean island -- his most interesting film. The Black Power movie was directed and written by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, who’d co-created 1965’s “Battle of Algiers,” a riveting account of Algeria’s independence movement.
In the Cuban director Rigoberto Lopez’s 2004 “Scent of an Oak” a German merchant (Jorge Perrugoria) falls in love with an ex-slave (Lia Chapman), and they establish a model of liberation at their coffee plantation, Angerona. But instead of inspiring Cuba’s plantation owners to pursue fair play, the slavers persecute the interracial couple instead.
In 2012 French TV director/co-writer Philippe Niang put on the stellar French mini-series “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” starring Haiti-born actor Jimmy Jean-Louis as the co-leader of 1791’s Haitian revolution. The action-packed film follows the title character’s evolution from slave to the “New Spartacus,” general and governor of the “world’s first Black republic,” as Haiti is called. In the process the cause takes its toll on Toussaint’s private life, especially on his wife Suzanne (Malian/Gambian actress Aïssa Maïga of 2006’s “Bamako”). Toussaint comes across at all times as a dignified, extraordinary individual – the real deal, who is at the same time made of flesh and blood: No statue is he. This made-for-TV-production looks great, with lush production values and superb period costumes, which enhance its ambiance of authenticity. The Caribbean sequences were lensed at Martinique. This is a production worthy of those brave Black Jacobins, who defeated Napoleon and terrified America’s slaveholders.
According to IMDB, Jeta Amata -- one of Nollywood’s top filmmakers -- directed “Emperor: The Story of Toussaint l’Ouverture,” set to be released in 2013, the 210th anniversary of the freedom fighter’s death.
Television’s top documentarian, Ken Burns, deals with issues stemming from American slavery and its aftermath in two nonfiction PBS mini-series, 1990’s “The Civil War” and 1999’s “Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony.” “The Emancipation Proclamation took the Civil War from being a battle over Union and the survival of the nation and took it to a higher plane,” Burns said in an interview with one of this article’s co-authors. “It was saying that we were going to live out the true meaning of our creed, which was that ‘all men are created equal.’ The guy who wrote that owned other human beings, and so set in motion events that would eventually lead to the greatest cataclysm in the history of our country, the Civil War, that killed nearly 750,000 people. It’s always a complicated thing; it’s not black or white. There were Union soldiers who laid down their arms and said they ‘would rather have moss grow on their backs than fight for the liberation of the Black man.’ They were there for Union at that time. For others, it was a great ennobling cause, and helped keep France and England from coming in on the side of the South.”
Referring to “Not for Ourselves Alone,” Burns went on to say: “In the Suffrage movement though, those who had worked tirelessly for abolition and women’s rights thought that by the time Black men were extended the vote, they would extend the vote to everyone. Why just Black men? Why not [Black] women and women in general? And there was great division within these liberation movements, if you will, within the crusades for abolition when the women suddenly got angry that they hadn’t been rewarded for focusing on abolition by extending it. And they took it out on Black men. Frederick Douglass had to fight back a woman who had defended him, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the author of the amendment that would eventually become the right for women to come.”
In 2007, during the bicentennial of Britain’s abolition of slavery, two films – both named “Amazing Grace” and screened during Black History Month at L.A.’s Pan-African Film Festival – commemorated the evils of enslavement and the movement to abolish it. In Michael Apted’s UK version, Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Mr. Fantastic in “Fantastic Four,” portrays an even more phenomenal superhero, the real-life English politician William Wilberforce who spearheaded the struggle to ban Britain’s trafficking in human cargo. For decades, Wilberforce and his merry band of abolitionists used petitions, boycotts and demonstrations to convince Parliament to pass the 1807 law that finally ended the English Empire’s transshipment of human chattel.
Both “Amazing Grace” movies take their name from the Christian hymn, its music derived from African folksongs with lyrics by John Newton. The Nigerian version of “Amazing Grace,” directed by Jeta Amata, features a slave uprising and is a biopic about English slaver John Newton, who realized the errors of his ways, composed the hymn “Amazing Grace” and devoted the rest of his life to abolishing slavery. “I once was lost but now am found” – indeed! Newton became Wilberforce’s mentor; Albert Finney portrays Newton in Apted’s adaptation.
Now, two top anti-slavery major motion pictures have come in time for the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th birthday. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” written by Tony Kushner, partially based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” focuses on the final months of the 16th president’s life, as he struggles to pass the 13th Amendment. The backroom politicking, as the Great Emancipator (Daniel Day-Lewis in another Oscar caliber, bravura performance) alternately twists legislative arms and dangles carrots in the form of presidential perqs, while contending with a troubled wife (Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln), is brilliantly conveyed. As 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation only abolished slavery in the Southern states that had seceded -- an area the Union did not actually control -- the abolition of slavery, once and for all time, required a constitutional guarantee. Lincoln deftly presides over Congress’ passage of Amendment XIII during the Civil War’s closing days in 1865, aided by the scene-stealing Tommy Lee Jones as the staunch abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who, discretely, has a Black lover.
Lincoln” is an idealistic liberal fantasy film. In a critical online editorial, Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive Magazine, asks: “Where, oh where, was Frederick Douglass?” noting that “Lincoln had an important friendship with the great black freedom fighter, an amazing figure unto himself, but there is no Frederick Douglass in this film—and, for that matter, no strong African American who is neither a soldier nor a house servant, with all of them positioned in subservience.” Blacks are welcomed into the House gallery during the vote on the amendment that would ensure their freedom from enslavement, but they are passive witnesses, instead of the active participants as seen in “Glory,” wherein armed African-Americans -- more than 200,000 -- fought for their own liberation.
Following a private screening of “Lincoln” at the Directors Guild of America’s Sunset Strip theatre J.J. Abrams interviewed Spielberg onstage, noting that the last Lincolnesque biopics starred Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 “Young Mr. Lincoln” and Raymond Massey in the aforementioned “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” reprising the role in several 1950s TV appearances and a cameo in 1962’s “How the West Was Won.” Spielberg quipped that he “risked offending a statue,” and added: “There have been more books written about Lincoln than any other historical figure outside of the Bible.”
Spielberg stressed the film’s emphasis on accuracy, saying that “photos of historical figures” and places were used to ensure authenticity. However, unlike Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” Spielberg opted against depicting Lincoln’s assassination. “He earned not to have you witness that. It would be a cheap sensational moment,” Spielberg said regarding the movie which is largely devoid of the spectacle of battle prominently featured in some of his other films, including 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” and 2012’s “War Horse.”
Characters don’t bleed in Quentin Tarantino movies -- blood spurts, splattered all over the place, and in “Django Unchained” Jamie Foxx’s eponymous ex-slave- turned-bounty hunter kills more “whiteys” than Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army combined. Bullets fly fast and furious in Tarantino’s Spaghetti Western-meets-Blaxploitation film-meets-Wagnerian opera, along with what The Hollywood Reporter states is more than 100 utterances of the “N-word.” In this bloodfest, like Siegfried in Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Django struggles to free his wife Brünnhilde (Kerry Washington), who is enslaved at the Mississippi plantation of Candyland by the wicked owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His deviously devoted “house Negro” Stephen is portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, who appears made up to resemble that advertising icon, “Uncle Ben.”
In a post-screening conversation with fellow director Taylor Hackford on the DGA’s stage in Hollywood, Tarantino alluded to the mythic “Nibelungen,” observing, “the circle of hellfire around her [Washington’s Brünnhilde] is slavery.” Tarantino explained his über-violent story choices: “I can understand that people are uncomfortable with a slave narrative. It was the ugliest time.” The “Pulp Fiction” director described the plantation owners as “Southern aristocrats” who “lived the life of barons. An army of slaves were theirs; whites were paid slave wages to keep the slaves in line. You really were the king.” Tarantino called DiCaprio’s slave master “Caligula” and explained that the character has to come up with hobbies to keep life interesting. Mandingo fighting” is a blood sport the cruel Candie indulges in, ordering slaves to engage in mortal combat solely to amuse him.
Tarantino seems to agree with John Brown’s last written words “that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” A sequence featuring masked night riders mocks the Ku Klux Klan, the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation.”
“That was my ‘fuck you’ to D.W. Griffith,” Tarantino exulted, defiantly raising his middle finger. At the DGA screening, when the co-authors asked Foxx -- who’d won the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Ray Charles in 2004’s “Ray” and an ex-gang leader in the 2004 made-for-TV-movie “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story” -- if he was thinking about the Emancipation Proclamation’s sesquicentennial while shooting “Django Unchained” Foxx replied: “I was thinking about everything.”
Forced Labor Camps
20th century-set slavery pictures moved from plantations to concentration camps, primarily during World War II. Secretly co-written by blacklistees Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is about Allied soldiers in a POW camp forced by Imperial Japanese soldiers to construct a railway bridge in an Asian jungle.
Hitler’s “Final Solution” spawned many Holocaust pictures, including adaptations of the Anne Frank saga about the teenaged Jewish diarist who went from hiding in a Dutch attic to Bergen-Belsen. Confronted by Nazism, the innocent girl, played by Millie Perkins in George Stevens’ 1959 “The Diary of Anne Frank,” poignantly muses: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are basically good at heart.”
Forced labor camps were powerfully portrayed in Italian cinema. Pontecorvo and Solinas’ 1959 “Kapo” features a concentration camp revolt.
In Lina Wertmuller’s 1975 “Seven Beauties,” Giancarlo Giannini’s Latin lover woos a repulsive Nazi camp commandant in order to survive.
In 1997’s Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful,” actor/director Roberto Benigni spares his son from fascism’s horrors by convincing him the death camp they’re imprisoned in is just a big game.
Although most slavery pictures are dramas, the last two, interestingly, are comedies -- like Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 “The Great Dictator,” the 1960s TV series “Hogan’s Heroes,” Dani Levy’s 2007 “My Fuhrer,” plus Mel Brooks’ 1968 “The Producers” and the 2005 musical adaptation of the movie and play featuring the “Springtime for Hitler” dance extravaganza.
Spielberg directed the greatest concentration camp film ever, 1993’s Best Picture, “Schindler’s List,” starring Liam Neeson as a real-life righteous rescuer of Jews.
While most forced labor camp pictures deal with fascism, 1970’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel about Stalin’s gulag archipelago.
1984’s “The Killing Fields” exposes Pol Pot’s death camps in Cambodia and is directed by Roland Joffe (who also made 1986’s “The Mission,” about slavery in 18th century South America). Just as Greeks and Americans spoke of democracy but owned slaves, Stalinists have sometimes turned a blind eye to police state practices carried out in the name of Marx and Lenin.
Oskar Schindler, who heroically saved hundreds of Jews, was an Aryan and Nazi Party member, but there’s also a Tinseltown trend of portraying the oppressed themselves, standing up for their rights and fighting back.
Daniel Craig portrayed rea-life Jewish resistance leader Tuvia Bielski who was licensed to kill Nazis in 2008’s “Defiance,” set in Belarus during WWII.
Tarantino’s 2009 gory “Inglourious Basterds” depicts American and European Jews fighting fascism in Nazi-occupied France. Interestingly, like Tarantino, “Defiance” director Ed Zwick also helmed a picture wherein the downtrodden arise to fight for freedom -- “Glory,” about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Civil War’s first African-American fighting units.
Sci Fi Slavery
Science fiction spawned futuristic pictures of human bondage. In the satirical “Planet of the Apes” the human Charlton Heston is captured by highly evolved apes and imprisoned in a Homo Sapien zoo. The 1968 film is a clever commentary on race, class and Darwin co-written by blacklistee Michael Wilson. The original was so successful that it evolved into a series of sequels, a 1974 TV series, a 2001 remake and 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” proving that Hollywood knows a good -- and profitable -- thing when it sees it.
In 1948 George Orwell wrote “1984,” a dystopian novel about totalitarian thought police watching people through TVs. (What would Orwell think of today’s surveillance society? If the PATRIOT Act isn’t snooping on you, YouTube, cell phones, stoplight-cams are.) Orwell’s chilling Big Brother fable was adapted in 1956 and 1984, starring Edmond O’Brien, then John Hurt, as Winston Smith, rebelling against the doubletalking regime that declares: “Freedom is slavery.” In 2006, activist/actor Tim Robbins directed a stage version of “1984,” reflecting torture and Gestapo-like tactics at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, CIA secret prisons, etc. Futuristic national security states are also depicted in 2006’s “V for Vendetta” and “Children of Men.”
It’s hard to believe but a century and a half after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, forms of enslavement continues -- at home and abroad.
In 2010’s “Casino Jack” Kevin Spacey and Spencer Garrett depict über-Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Majority Whip Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. Among other things, George Hickenlooper’s film reveals their slave labor racket in sweatshops at the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory with its coveted “made in U.S.A.” labels, which have ensured garments preferential trade treatment.
Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino is a United Nations goodwill ambassador who focuses on and lobbies against contemporary forced labor and sex trafficking. Putting her money where her mouth is, Sorvino plays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in the 2005 Lifetime miniseries “Human Trafficking.” Sorvino returns to the theme in 2012’s Thailand-shot “Trade of Innocents,” co-starring with Dermot Mulroney as a couple thwarting sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. In Dec. 6, 2012 Sorvino told the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual forum at Washington: “On the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we must adopt a uniform, zero-tolerance policy toward modern-day slavery.”
In 2010’s “The Whistleblower,” Rachel Weisz depicts Kathryn Bolkovac, a real-life Nebraska police investigator who worked as a U.N. International Police Force monitor in war torn Bosnia. British actress/activist Vanessa Redgrave co-stars as Madeleine Rees, the gender expert and Head of Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this hard-hitting film Redgrave and Weisz’s characters expose a sex trafficking and prostitution ring which U.N. employees are implicated in.
In the 2012 LAPD thriller “End of Watch” Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena portray young officers who stumble upon a human trafficking ring of undocumented workers from South of the border.
21st Century Slavery
Why has there been a silver screen slave procession that continues to our day?
Hollywood stresses the individual, and in slave pictures, the white characters. But imagine how much more dramatic “Gone with the Wind” would be if an urban militant like Spike Lee, instead of Southern belle Margaret Mitchell, wrote it and then directed it. Instead of focusing on Rhett and Scarlet’s sex life, Prissy and Mammy might lead a Nat Turner-like mass uprising and burn Tara to the ground. Now that’s entertainment!
If drama is conflict, the struggle to be free is the stuff high drama is made of. What could possibly be more gripping than the battle caused by involuntary submission to someone who owns and exploits other humans as pieces of property? Unfortunately, the yoke of human bondage has not been conquered by the milk of human kindness and remains among us today. Like the ghost in 1998’s “Beloved,” servitude’s legacy still haunts us. As the world’s oldest human rights organization, London-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI), points out: “It is something we think of as part of our history rather than our present. But the reality is slavery continues TODAY.”
200 years after Britain outlawed the slave trade, and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in the Confederacy, slavery makes headlines.
According to ASI, although outlawed by conventions such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Women from eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution, children are trafficked between West African countries and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race.”
On Nov. 24, 2012 112 unorganized low wage workers perished in a fire at a Bangladesh sweatshop due to the unsafe working conditions and negligence of the owner of the Tarzeen Fashions factory, which provided garments to Walmart, Sears and other Western companies. According to the New York Times, nine “midlevel managers and supervisors prevented employees from leaving their sewing machines even after a fire alarm sounded.” The tragedy was reminiscent of the deadliest workplace accident ever in New York, when largely due to locked doors 100-plus mostly female workers were unable to escape a blaze at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, which was recounted in the 2011 documentary “Triangle Fire.”
“Amistad’s” Djimon Hounsou was Oscar-nominated for 2006’s “Blood Diamond,” which co-starred DiCaprio and is about child soldiers impressed into service during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Slavery persists from Sudan to Saipan, the U.S. territory where Asian women are forced into the sex industry and sweat shop labor, according to “Casino Jack,” as well as the Robert Greenwald-presented 2006 documentary “The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress.”
Another form of bonded labor is decried in two 2006 documentaries, Danny “News Dissector” Schechter’s “In Debt We Trust” and James Scurlock’s “Maxed Out,” revealing how credit cards and high interest rates turn millions of Americans into modern day indentured servants.
The U.S. military’s involuntary servitude through a backdoor draft and involuntary extension of a serviceman/woman’s tour of duty is exposed and challenged in anti-war documentaries such as Patricia Foulkrod’s 2006 “The Ground Truth” and Kimberly Peirce’s 2008 feature “Stop-Loss.”
Although the Transatlantic slave trade ended long ago, globalization engenders its own migrant labor, and the 21st century peonage of undocumented workers is exposed in Richard Linklater’s 2006 “Fast Food Nation.” 2006’s Best Picture Oscar winner, “Crash,” ends with a Huey Newton-quoting petty Black criminal stumbling upon a van-full of “illegal” Chinese aliens. But instead of profiteering from trafficking in human cargo, he has enough consciousness to emancipate them instead.
2012’s “Les Miserables” opens with a scene of convict labor performed by prisoners in shackles. The musical movie based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel closes with a vibrant tableaux that suggests heaven is when the enslaved of the Earth revolt and throw off the chains that bind them.
As we observe the 150th birthday of the Emancipation Proclamation it’s worth remembering that wherever there is slavery in any form, sooner or later resistance follows -- along with filmmakers who, to paraphrase Percy Bysshe Shelley, are humanity’s unacknowledged legislators.
Ed Rampell and Luis I. Reyes co-authored “Made in Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas” and “Pearl Harbor in the Movies.” They are currently writing a new book on Hawaii films and TV programs since 1995. Reyes co-wrote “Hispanics in Hollywood, A celebration of 100 years in film and Television.” Rampell wrote “Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States,” and contributes regularly to The Progressive magazine.
As America observes the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, actors depicting the Great Emancipator, an abolitionist Congressman and an immigrant who frees a slave and the movies they’re in have all been nominated for Oscars, along with films celebrating revolution in France and the Age of Reason in Scandinavia.
Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Honest Abe and Tommy Lee Jones plays the Radical Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens in Best Picture nominee “Lincoln,” which is about passage of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery, snagged 12 Academy Award nominations (the most noms this year), including Steven Spielberg for Best Director and Tony Kushner for Best Adapted Screenplay.
German actor Christoph Waltz, the émigré bounty hunter disdainful of slavery who liberates (the un-nominated) Jamie Foxx, scored a Best Supporting Actor nom for “Django Unchained,” which is likewise one of the nine Best Picture nominees. Waltz previously won that accolade for Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 anti-Nazi “Inglourious Basterds”; Tarantino received an Original Screenplay nomination for the militantly anti-slavery, 1858-set “Django Unchained,” wherein Foxx’s Django kills more white supremacists than Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, John Brown, Malcolm X and Huey Newton combined. Denzel Washington, who’d previously won a Best Actor Oscar and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a Black Civil War soldier fighting to end slavery in 1989’s “Glory,” has also been nominated for Best Actor for "Flight."
The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic “Les Miserables” received eight nominations, including: Best Picture; Hugh Jackman for Best Actor as Jean Valjean, the wronged convict who does forced labor; Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the proletarian forced into prostitution, for Best Supporting Actress; and for Best Original Song (“Suddenly”). This epic about injustice depicts an 1832 student uprising in Paris and ends with France’s 99% taking to a symbolically gigantic barricade, symbolizing the revolutionary spirit.
The Best Foreign Language Film nominees are: Denmark’s “A Royal Affair” is a lushly romantic, fact-based period piece about how enlightened doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) brought the Age of Reason’s ideals to the court of King Christian VII. Canada’s “War Witch” is about a 12-year-old girl in sub-Saharan Africa who is captured by a rebel army during a civil war. The Chilean “No” stars Gael Garcia Bernal (who played Che in “The Motorcycle Diaries” and a cable TV movie) as an advertising executive who campaigns against dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in a 1998 referendum. Norway’s “Kon-Tiki” is a fictionalization of the real life voyage of a raft from Peru to French-occupied Polynesia, with Gustaf Skarsgård as Bengt Danielsson, the Swedish anthropologist who eventually became one of the leading voices protesting French nuclear testing near Tahiti.
The youngest (nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis for "Beasts of the Southern Wild") and oldest (85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva for Michael Haneke’s "Amour") actresses ever to be nominated for Best Actress are competing in that category with Sally Field, who plays an increasingly unhinged Mary Todd Lincoln in “Lincoln,”, Jennifer Lawrence in "Silver Linings Playbook" and Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent who supposedly helped liquidate Osama Bin Laden in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Although nominated for Best Picture, “Zero’s” director, Kathryn Bigelow -- who’d won Best Director for 2009’s Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker” -- did not receive an encore directing nom for the movie which has been mired in controversy regarding the role torture played in killing Bin Laden and whether the CIA and/or Obama administration leaked classified information to the filmmakers.
The Louisiana-set indie "Beasts of the Southern Wild" has likewise generated heat for its depictions of child abuse and of a predominantly Black subculture pursuing a backwoods lifestyle, although Benh Zeitlin received a Best Directing nom, as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination with co-writer Lucy Alibar.
The Best Documentary Feature nominees include Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s “5 Broken Cameras,” about a Palestinian farmer’s filming of the struggle against Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank. "The Gatekeepers" is about former chiefs of Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. "How to Survive a Plague" deals with the anti-AIDs activist groups ACT UP and TAG. Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” is a powerful indictment of the rape epidemic in the U.S. military. "Searching for Sugar Man" is about the rediscovery of the Chicano musician Rodriguez, who inspired South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Although "Chasing Ice" -- which uses stunning time lapse cameras to document glacial melting -- was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature, the film’s "Before My Time" by J. Ralph is up for Best Original Song.
Ang Lee, who’d won Best Director for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” is up for the same Academy Award this year for “Life of Pi,” which has also been nominated for Best Picture. In an upset, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a relatively small film dealing with mental illness, earned eight nominations, including in all of the acting categories (an Oscar rarity), and David O. Russell for Best Director and adapted Screenplay. In another unusual Academy move, all of the Best Supporting Actor nominees -- including Robert De Niro for “Silver Linings Playbook” -- have previously scored Oscar gold.
Abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens inspired Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a scheming, overzealous congressman, in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic “The Birth of a Nation.” But Tommy Lee Jones’ scene-stealing depiction in “Lincoln” sets the record straight about one of America’s greatest freedom fighters, who dares to love an African-American woman.
You’ve come a long way, Thaddy -- and so have the movies.
On Sunday, as Tinseltown prepared for the annual Academy Awards presentations and setup bleacher seats on Hollywood Boulevard’s fabled Walk of Fame, an Emmy-award-winning actor and other religious and secular activists protested Zero Dark Thirty, the fictionalized account of the hunt for Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, which received five Oscar nominations.
Some demonstrators wore orange jumpsuits to raise consciousness about detainees held -- some allegedly tortured -- at Guantanamo and other top secret CIA “black sites.”
Before taking to the streets, the protesters attended an anti-torture program at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, which is adorned by a gigantic red bow for AIDS awareness and literally located across the street from the complex where the Academy Awards ceremony is to take place this Sunday in the Dolby Theatre.
The church event, attended by around 75 people, was presented by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.
Grace Dyrness, director of interfaith outreach and development for the ICUJP, opened the gathering proclaiming, “Today we are declaring that torture is wrong.”
Attorney Cindy Pánuco, of the Pasadena law firm Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick, who represents Gitmo detainee Obaidulla, criticized Zero Dark Thirty. Referring to the U.S. torture of prisoners in the movie, Pánuco noted: “What’s shown in the film is still ongoing -- it’s not part of history. Not one character in the movie decried what we did, the violating of laws.” She said “the film missed an opportunity” to raise questions about U.S. torture methods, conditions of confinement, and more.
Stating that she was legally restrained from publicly revealing certain information about her Afghan client, Pánuco did say that there were “public reports that Obaidulla was hit on the head with a rifle butt, tortured with enhanced interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, but not water-boarding.” Pánuco added that Obaidulla, who is now 30, was captured nine years ago during a night raid when his daughter was just two days old, and that he’s missed her entire childhood.
Paz Artaza-Regan, who grew up in Chile under the repressive U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is the program and outreach director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Artaza-Regan condemned the “acceptance of a culture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons… There’s no grounding in ethics and morality in Zero Dark Thirty, or even of the effectiveness of torture.”
A 20-minute anti-torture film was then projected. It included accounts by Orlando Tizon, a Filipino survivor of torture inflicted by the U.S.-backed dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and by an American military interrogator in Iraq. In the film, Harper’s Magazine’s Scott Horton noted that torture is “degrading to the torturer, too,” and cited “three cases of stellar U.S. personnel who committed suicide, and left notes saying they were required to do things they can’t reconcile with their consciences.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights’s Gita Gutierrez pointed out, “When North Korea did it the U.S. unhesitatingly called it ‘torture’ and wanted accountability. We don’t want these practices to be reciprocal.”
After the film David Clennon – who, during the program, cut orange ribbons to represent detainees in their orange uniforms -- was introduced as “the actor who stood up against torture.” Clennon won an Emmy for Dream On and was also Emmy nominated for the TV series thirtysomething. He appeared in the seminal lefty seventies movies Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and more recently in Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar. Much to his regret, Clennon played agent Joshua Nankin in the CBS TV series The Agency.
Clennon denounced the way Bin Laden was killed, which is celebrated in Zero Dark Thirty, as a “vigilante adventure.” And he denounced the film’s “despicable message.”
As a show biz industry insider who belongs to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (which awards the Oscars), Clennon spoke about “the intersection of culture and morality, culture and politics,” and the “impact” of mass entertainment, debunking the notion that, “ ‘Hey, it’s just a movie!’ ”
Clennon pointed out that just as Kiefer Sutherland was a handsome leading man as Counter Terrorist Unit agent/torturer Jack Bauer in the long-running 24 Fox TV series, in Zero Dark Thirty, “Our heroine, who inflicts torture, is a dedicated CIA officer played by a very beautiful young woman [Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain]. This draws us in so we root for a coldblooded murderer. The same holds true for 24, which did more than Cheney or Rumsfeld to sell torture to the American public as a necessary evil.”
Following the anti-torture meeting, many attendees took their protest to the belly of the military-entertainment-industrial-complex’s beast, marching the long block down to the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, where, holding anti-torture picket signs and wearing orange ribbons, they peacefully demonstrated near the site where the Academy Awards ceremony will take place.
Among the picketers was Michael Slate, a KPFK Pacifica radio host and writer for Revolution, the Revolutionary Communist Party’s newspaper. Slate said that since Zero Dark Thirty’s director Kathryn Bigelow had not been nominated for the Best Director Oscar (probably because of the controversy stirred by her purported collaboration with the CIA and Pentagon in making the movie), the so-called Committee for Sanitizing Crimes Against Humanity in Film is bestowing the Leni Riefenstahl Award, named after Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, who directed the 1935 pro-Nazi “Triumph of the Will.”
Bigelow may not have received a Best Director nom because of the controversy stirred by her and screenwriter Mark Boal’s alleged collaboration with the CIA and Pentagon in making the movie. The CIA has had a film liaison officer at its Langley, Va. headquarters, while the Defense Department has one posted at the Pentagon. And the various branches of the armed services have entertainment industry liaison offices on an entire floor of a high rise near UCLA. According to Dave Robb, author of Operation Hollywood, pursuant to passage of a script approval process, the CIA and/or DOD assist productions that favorably depict them and help them vis-à-vis Congressional appropriations, retention, and recruitment of personnel. This assistance can be in the form of access to military bases or the CIA HQ, use of military personnel and high tech equipment, and, Robb maintains in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, “inside dope.”
Among the movies that did not receive Pentagon and/or CIA support are Vietnam War veteran Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning 1986 Platoon and 2001’s Spy Game, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt.
On Feb. 24 an “interfaith gathering against the culture of torture” is scheduled to take place at L.A.’s United University Church, shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony begins. It remains to be seen if Bigelow’s agitprop “triumph of the swill” will win any Oscars.
The three top professions that specialize in “make believe” -- Hollywood, intelligence agencies and the Executive Branch -- collided Sunday at the Dolby Theatre as the president’s wife announced that the pro-CIA agitprop movie “Argo” won the Best Picture Oscar.
“Welcome to the White House everyone,” Michelle Obama declared towards the end of the live Academy Awards ceremony via remote camera, cutting away from her co-presenter Jack Nicholson to the Executive Mansion, where she was surrounded by uniformed personnel.
The First Lady’s odd, historically unprecedented intrusion into what is supposed to be an entertainment event during one of the most-watched telecasts of the year came as the Senate was considering Pres. Obama’s nominee for the CIA.
Furthermore, one of the nine movies nominated for Best Picture, “Zero Dark Thirty,” portrayed a mission ordered by her own husband.
Although there have been other appearances by a First Lady and presidents at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences’ annual ritual of patting itself on its back, none have ever announced the Best Picture winner.
Mrs. Obama is the first to do so in an act that Tom Hayden described as “showing the prominence of Hollywood in political culture.”
And, one could say, vice versa.
The awards ceremony celebrated cinematic espionage in a number of other ways. There was a long homage to James Bond, depicting 007’s derring-do and the virile, handsome stars from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, who have played the supposedly suave British secret agent for five decades.
The tribute was capped by 76-year-old Shirley Bassey reprising live the famous theme song for 1964’s “Goldfinger.” The British singer Adele went on to belt out her hit from the latest Bond flick, “Skyfall,” for which she also won the golden statuette for Best Original Song.
On the surface the occasion for the Bond salutation was the 50th anniversary of the first 007 thriller, 1962’s “Dr. No” -- but it might have been a salute to Hollywood’s love affair with cloak and dagger and those spies who dupe us on the big and little screens, on and off of Her Majesty’s -- and His President’s -- secret service.
One of the Oscar ceremony’s other award presenters was Jennifer Garner, who from 2001-2006 portrayed spy Sydney Bristow on the TV series “Alias.” Garner also appeared in a recruiting ad for the Central Intelligence Agency around the time the CIA was involved in falsifying disinformation about Iraq’s fictitious WMDs. During her husband Ben Affleck’s Best Picture acceptance speech, he acknowledged his wife and the camera cut to Garner, the TV spy who loved him.
“Argo” also won in other Oscar categories, including Film Editing and Adapted Screenplay. Never mind that the tense inter-cutting between those Iranian Revolutionary Guards chasing that Swiss Air flight down the airport tarmac in a well-written scene is a flight of fancy concocted by screenwriter Chris Terrio.
Or that this paean to the CIA is what Andrew O’Hehir called in Salon “a propaganda fable” and “wholesale fictionalization.”
In an interview with The Progressive Magazine, Tom Hayden noted that while a brief intro to “Argo” mentions the U.S. and U.K. role in overthrowing the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, it does not specifically cite the role the CIA played in that coup and in installing a regime that wreaked so much CIA-supported torture and brutality on Iran that it spawned the chain of events that led not only to the 1979 revolution, but to the very hostage taking depicted in the film. (And while we’re at it, forget about the fact that agent Tony Mendez, “the Mexican-American hero was played by a white guy anyway,” as O’Hehir put it.)
Mired in controversy because of its depictions of torture and the contested allegation that these enhanced interrogation techniques helped hunt down Osama Bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” lost in all five Oscar categories.
By picking “Argo” over “Zero,” the liberal wing of the Academy seemed to be signaling that it had zero tolerance for torture, and preferred the kinder, gentler CIA depicted in “Argo” than the Agency that had journeyed over to the Bush/Cheney dark side of cruel and unusual punishment in “Zero.”
But liberals such as Affleck, and his “Argo” co-producers George Clooney (who reportedly uses satellites to monitor Sudan) and Grant Heslov, are still lauding the Agency.
With liberal propagandists like this, who needs reactionaries?
Ironically, another of the evening’s award presenters was that icon of the Hollywood Left, two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda, Hayden’s former wife. As the Chicago Seven alum told The Progressive, “the CIA had files on both of us,” because of the couple’s activism and, presumably, Fonda’s influence in movies, with films such as 1979’s anti-nuclear “The China Syndrome” and the 1978 antiwar feature “Coming Home” and the suppressed 1972 anti-Vietnam War documentary “FTA.”
There’s a good reason why the spies who dupe us with propaganda disguised as mass entertainment haven’t been played in onscreen dramas by, say, Jerry Lewis, Karl Malden or Melissa McCarthy.
From Sean Connery to Roger Moore to “24’s” Kiefer Sutherland to Jennifer Garner to “Zero’s” Jessica Chastain to Claire Danes of the Showtime CIA series “Homeland,” Hayden said: “The Left has become incredibly marginalized in popular culture since the ‘War on Terrorism’ broke out. These [TV] projects like ‘24’ and ‘Alias’ and whole series of movies culminating in last night have created a favorable impression of the CIA… Overall, it’s not so much the content; it’s the image of very attractive people. Hollywood, above all, knows that image trumps fact. Political consultants know that, too. You can get away with quite a lot if you’re personable, attractive, and charismatic. It’s not a good position to be in if you’re a longtime critic of the CIA.”
Over the years, from the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine to the Gulf of Tonkin incident to Iraq’s confabulated weapons of mass destruction, the White House and clandestine agencies have, like Tinseltown, mass produced and disseminated fiction, disinformation, lies and fables that purport themselves to be “news” or “entertainment.” Just like the Hollywood filmmakers portrayed by Oscar nominee Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who deceptively collaborate with the deceptive CIA covert mission that “Argo” apotheosizes, deception is justified in La-La-Land -- if it helps the CIA catch its man.
After the Venezuelan leader’s untimely death at age 58 on March 5, Danny Glover’s publicist sent this prepared statement to The Progressive: “In sadness and in tribute to my friend, Hugo Chavez, I join with millions of Venezuelans, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, fellow U.S. citizens and millions of freedom-loving people around the world, in hope for a rewarding future for the democratic and social development charter of the Bolivarian Revolution. We all embraced Hugo Chavez as a social champion of democracy, material development, and spiritual well-being.”
Glover, who emerged out of the Black Power movement in the Bay Area during the 1960s, isn’t the only leftist Tinseltown talent lamenting the loss of the fiery, feisty socialist who dared denounce Pres. Bush at the United Nations as “the devil.”
Director Oliver Stone, who featured Chavez in his 2010 documentary South of the Border, had his publicist send this March 6 statement to The Progressive: “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”
The friendship between the Yankee filmmaker and the South American populist is apparent in the doc, wherein Chavez, among other things, playfully rides a bicycle. In a 2010 interview with this author for The Progressive, Stone explained why the dramatist primarily known for Hollywood movies such as Salvador, Platoon and Wall Street made the nonfiction South of the Border about Chavez and Latin America’s other left-leaning heads of state: “Because they’ve been demonized by a combination of their own local media, which is oligarch-controlled by private, rich families, who don’t want to see change in their countries along the lines these leaders are proposing. And also by the United States media, which is surprising, considering their distance from the facts. Why? It’s amazing; it’s across the board in the United States. It goes from right to left; liberal media, too, including many progressive publications, which don’t understand the nature of what’s really going on down there. So they make a big issue about Chavez.”
During the Q&A Stone discussed Chavez’s concept of “21st century socialism”: “Free market economics did not work in South America. It drove, the per capita growth rate in South America averaged 9% from 1980 to 2000. Whereas it averaged from 1960 to 1980 somewhere like 62% growth rate. After the 2000 period, if you look at the per capita growth rate in these countries with these new leaders, it’s much, much better. And it’s because they’ve pursued their policies of semi-socialism and nationalization. Nationalization, by the way, is not expropriation. These people have been paid off. Chavez is very clear about it – he compensates the companies that have been nationalized in Venezuela, which is a distinction lost often on the American media.”
The three-time Oscar winner went on to say: “The World Bank statistics clearly show that Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador have all benefited from their administrations. Particularly in Venezuela, the gross national product, the economy, has grown 90% from 2003 to 2008. Ninety percent! That’s one figure they can never – I guess all these critics can’t get away from that figure. Another thing that has happened is that poverty was cut 50%. Extreme poverty 70%. These are World Bank statistics, not made up by Chavez, as they claim. So, when he gets democratically reelected in 2006 they all gripe and complain, but people are voting for him because they’re pleased, he’s actually delivering on his pledge. I don’t understand this constant harping about this or that, when the man has actually done what he said he was going to do. Because why? He grew up poor, he knows what it is to be poor. It’s unbelievable to me how blind we are in our criticism, how picky and nasty. Whereas in our own country we ignore the poor, we make them… go off and fight in foreign wars that we create.”
Sean Penn, who co-starred with Jennifer Lopez in Stone’s 1997 film noir U Turn, also knew Chavez and in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter likewise saluted his companero: “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela. Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of Vice President Maduro.”
At the front page of his website documentarian Michael Moore posted several stories about the Venezuelan president and a photo of himself shaking a smiling Chavez’s hand. The Academy Award winner, who reportedly met Chavez in 2009 at the Venice Film Festival, wrote via Twitter that they spoke for more than an hour: “He said he was happy 2 finally meet someone Bush hated more than him.”
On March 5, Moore Tweeted: “Hugo Chavez declared the oil belonged 2 the ppl. He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all… That made him dangerous. US approved of a coup to overthrow him even though he was a democratically-elected President ... You won’t hear much nice about him in the US media in the next few days. So, I thought I'd say a couple things to provide some balance.”
Moore added: “Before they cheerleaded us into the Iraq War, the US media was busy cheering on the overthrow of Chavez. 54 countries around the world allowed the US to detain (& torture) suspects. Latin America, thanks 2 Chavez, was the only place that said no.”
After a 2006 private screening of producer Rory Kennedy’s Street Fight, about Cory Booker’s then upstart campaign to become Newark’s mayor, this reporter attended a Santa Monica reception for the documentary. I sat with Dolores Huerta, who is being depicted by Rosario Dawson in an upcoming biopic about Cesar Chavez, and I asked the United Farm Workers’ co-founder about that other Chavez. Huerta had just gone on a fact finding trip to revolutionary Venezuela with activist/actor Danny Glover, PBS-TV talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton Prof. Cornel West, where the delegation toured the cooperatives’ complex called the Endogenous Development Nucleus Fabricio Ojeda, and met for six hours with el Presidente, Hugo Chavez. It was during this visit that singer/Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte made headlines by calling Pres. George W. Bush “the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world.”
I asked Huerta then, “What was Venezuela like?” The UFW veteran fixed her gaze on me: “Do you remember all those things we dreamt of in the ’60s?” Huerta said, referring to people’s programs such as free health clinics, schools, housing and the like. “Well, they’re doing it now in Venezuela.”
Jane Fonda made the peace sign as she dipped her hand in wet cement during the April 27 autograph ceremony at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre. The ebullient two-time Academy Award winner addressed a crowd of hundreds of fans, reporters, relatives and celebrities, including brother Peter Fonda, Jim Carrey and Eva Langoria.
“What’s particularly special to me is that I’m going to be right next to my dad,” said Fonda, referring to the slabs of concrete bearing the footprints and handprints of both herself and father Henry Fonda along with those of the other stars that decorate the Chinese Theatre’s world famous courtyard near Hollywood Boulevard’s fabled “Walk of Fame.”
Referring again to her famous father, who starred in progressive pictures such as the Spanish Civil War drama “Blockade” and the pro-union “The Grapes of Wrath,” the joyous Jane declared: “I can feel his presence right now, and he used to say to me, ‘Jane, don’t let this town walk all over you!’ Well, Dad, right now the town can walk over both of us.”
Forming a “V” with her fingers, Fonda waved the peace sign -- which she’d immortalized in cement -- as members of the audience did likewise and held cardboard signs supporting the actress who is next portraying Nancy Reagan in the upcoming movie “The Butler.”
The occasion for this bestowal of one of Hollywood’s highest honors was the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival. After the cement ceremony, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, who’d emceed the event, interviewed the iconic activist actress prior to a packed screening at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre movie palace of 1981’s “On Golden Pond,” the only film Fonda acted in with her father. She choked up while discussing shooting intimate scenes with the aging Henry, who went on to win his sole Best Actor Oscar for the role Jane had handpicked for him. Fonda also impersonated and dished the dirt on co-star Katharine Hepburn, revealing that after Jane failed to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she called to congratulate Hepburn on winning her fourth golden statuette, who cackled: “Now you’ll never catch up to me!” in terms of Oscars won.
The TCM Classic Film Festival, which took place in Hollywood April 25-28, presented personal appearances by movie greats, such as Fonda’s “Coming Home” co-star Jon Voight with his “Deliverance” co-actor Burt Reynolds, Tippi Hedren of “The Birds” and and Swedish actor Max Von Sydow. The festival also screened vintage films, including a number with progressive themes.
On the opening night Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 “South Pacific” was screened poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz -- grandson of “Citizen Kane” co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz -- moderated a talk with the musical’s 70-something co-stars, the feisty Mitzi Gaynor (Nurse Nellie of Little Rock) and France Nuyen (Liat, the “Happy Talk” girl).
Mankiewicz pointed out that “South Pacific” “teaches a very powerful message. . . . . The idea that people of different races can fall in love was a big deal in the 1950s.” The spunky Gaynor interjected, citing the specific song Mankiewicz was referring to, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, which stresses that racism is inculcated into children. As Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics put it, “Before you are six, seven or eight… You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
“We almost lost that song,” Nuyen revealed, because the studio executives wanted it cut from the film version of the Broadway hit. But Gaynor insisted, “Oscar wouldn’t stand for it. He was really a fine man. He was for world peace.”
In “South Pacific,” the “younger than springtime” Liat is Tonkinese -- from northern Vietnam -- and has a red hot love affair with a Marine, Lt. Cable (John Kerr), just a few years, ironically, before the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident led to LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War. (Make love, not war -- indeed!)
Hammerstein also has a screen credit in 1943’s “The Desert Song,” which Osborne called, “The movie more than any other I want to see at the Festival because it hasn’t been seen for 45 years,” due to a rights dispute. In this Warner Bros. Technicolor musical. Dennis Morgan plays a Yank who fought in the Spanish Civil War, then relocates to Morocco, where he leads the Riffs as the masked “El Khobar” in their struggle against forced labor under French colonialism. He reconciles the French and Riffs who join forces to fight the Nazis in this movie about desert warfare and Arabs resisting foreign occupation made decades before “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Battle of Algiers.” In the grand finale, the Arab masses sing a perfect expression of the WWII era’s anti-fascist films: “There’s a place beneath the sun for all, When all is for one and all for one.”
Two Festival screenings dealt with the Hollywood Blacklist, which purged those Popular Front movies. Eva Marie Saint presented 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” with its coded justification of informing, made by screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan, ex-Communists who “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Beau Bridges, son of actor Lloyd Bridges -- who ran afoul of the Blacklist -- co-introduced with author Eddie Muller the gripping 1950 black and white film noir classic “Try and Get Me,” wherein Lloyd plays a murderer who is killed by a lynch mob, following a riot whipped up by yellow journalism. Muller said the class conscious movie came out “at the height of the Hollywood witch-hunt and was deemed ‘un-American’ at the time because of its vigilante justice.”
This made Bridges’ eyebrows rise, and he added, “Cy Endfield [the director, who subsequently went into exile in England] was a victim of the witch-hunt, like my dad… My father was in Stanley Kramer’s  ‘Home of the Brave,’ the first film about racism. Because dad took the Black star home to dinner they called him a ‘Communist’ and said you’ve got to talk to the Committee [HUAC].”
In his introduction to William Wellman’s 1931 pre-Code film “Safe in Hell,” which is set at a Caribbean island, Donald Bogle -- the preeminent historian of the African-American screen image -- noted that the Black actors Clarence Muse, Noble Johnson and Nina Mae McKinney did not behave or speak in the stereotypical manner usually associated with Black actors during Hollywood’s not-so-Golden Age.
Documentarian Albert Maysles, who along with his brother David was a pioneer of cinema verite, was celebrated with screenings of the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 “Gimme Shelter” -- about the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert -- and 1968’s “Salesman,” which followed a quartet of Bible peddlers hawking their wares around the country.
In an interview with Mankiewicz preceding “Salesman” the 86-year-old said, “The film parallels what’s going on at Wall Street. It’s about the defects of the capitalist system. Maybe I should make a film about Wall Street?” Maysles mused, causing the audience to applaud.
In describing his fly-on-the-wall technique with lighter camera and sound recording equipment that allowed the Maysles to be more mobile and less intrusive, Albert stated that he aims to reveal a “genuine experience… where the camera isn’t in the way… Engagement, that’s the word I love. I give my hearts to my subjects,” who he “humanizes,” from “Grey Gardens’” eccentric Beales to the Beatles in “What’s Happening!” and “The First U.S. Visit” to “Meet Marlon Brando” to boxer Muhammad Ali to the rockers of “Monterey Pop” to the Roma of “When the Road Bends: Tales of a Gypsy Caravan.”
From the Fondas to a screening of Robert Redford’s 1975 anti-CIA “Three Days of the Condor,” attended by thousands of fans, the TCM Classic Film Festival proves there’s still an audience for period motion pictures, including those in glorious black and white, and even silent movies with Buster Keaton and Clara Bow accompanied by live orchestras. The film fete also shows that progressive cinema is one of the essentials of Hollywood history. Perhaps at next year’s TCM Fest Peter Fonda will dip the tire of his “Easy Rider” motorcycle in wet cement at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
For more info see: http://filmfestival.tcm.com/.