Go to the Movie
I'm not one to pass a good film by, having enjoyed Michael Mann's 'The Insider.' Its send-up of '60 Minutes' was enjoyable even as it felt the need to recuperate that bastion of US liberalism at film's end. This weekend I went to see Tim Robbin's 'The Cradle Will Rock.' Friends mentioned that it was good, a good enough recommendation.
But, I read a letter from Robbins in the <New York Times> (22 January 2000) in response to a tepid review a few weeks earlier. Robbins took umbrage at the reviewer's discomfort with his Left view of the 1930s and particularly the Federal Theater Project (1935-37). He felt that the movie perhaps offended the reviewer, Walter Goodman, for its presentation of 'an alternative account of our official history, suggesting that the United States was complicit in the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.' One would expect this of someone like Robbins, whose comments in The Nation (5 April 1999) bear repeating. When asked what sorts of contemporary issues our media ignores, he offered a litany:
'The recent civilian casualties in Iraq. I remember being adamantly opposed to the Gulf War. And you talk about the Hollywood Left, where the hell were they? The same people who will be absolutely crazy about animals being sacrificed in the name of medical research will not raise a voice about human beings who are killed in the name of oil. That's an uncomfortable issue for people. We've all turned our eyes away for whatever reason, religious or political. And refugee issues--the people who are in jails in the United States for wanting political asylum here, for trying to cross into the United States illegally and because their skin happens to be a darker hue. I think we have a really racist immigration policy that we don't think twice about. In New York City there is finally some attention being paid to this overly enthusiastic police state that's happening here--the erosion of civil liberties in the name of fighting crime.'
This is fine as analysis, but it is as fine when he turns it into art. I enjoyed 'The Cradle Will Rock' immensely, for all its many shortcomings (and every piece of art must have these, must be open to social development -- this is not to lessen its import). The movie is not just about Marc Blitzstein's musical (of the same name as the movie) which was directed by Orson Welles and first performed in an oratorio version at the Venice Theater (the details of this story are available in Michael Denning's extraordinarily informative book, <The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century,> Verso, 1996, pp. 285-295). It is also about Diego Rivera's 1933 mural in Rockefeller Center, destroyed at young Nelson's command (and here artistically transported a few years later). As a backdrop to the work of the Federal Theater Project (run by the very able Hallie Flanagan) there is the organization of Little Steel (1936-37) and the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, as well as the war in Spain. Heady stuff for one film.
But let us tend to two problems with the movie. First, there is much talk of the social changes within the Theater Project, the inter-racial interactions. But the movie mainly depicts this as a story of the benevolence of whites, for we get no sense of the initiative of Black actors and directors within the Project. For example, one of the substantial plays of the FTP was Theodore Ward's <Big White Fog> (Chicago, April 1937), a play that (in Lorraine Brown's words) 'seriously questioned the viability of capitalism for black people in America.' By Denning's reckoning Blitzstein's play was not as radical as some of the other stuff on the offing, and that may have been from people such as Ward.
Second, for all the talk of communism (whether from the anti-Red kooks well played by Joan Cusack and Bill Murray or Congressman Dies), there are not many communists in the film. Sure there is Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but there are no identifiable people in the film who would have straddled the world of the FTP and the Workers Theater Group (Artef). Denning tells us that Blitzstein may have been influenced by the pamphlets of William Z. Foster, but we don't get a sense of that. The Reds were not a phantom during the period. They were a genuine force. The Manifesto of the First National Workers Theater Conference brings to life some of that Red dynamism: 'The Workers Theater must undertake the systematic political and artistic training of its members. It must increase and improve its Agit-Prop work. It must go out to the masses -- into the street, to the factory gates, to the farms. It must reach the rank and file of the American Federation of Labor and the Socialist Party' (1932). To get a contemporary sense of this form of radical theater I recommend that folks travel to India to see Jan Natya Manch (People's Theatre Group) which performs street plays regularly. Janam works in the spirit of its martyred founder, Safdar Hashmi, killed in 1989 whilst in the midst of a play offered in strike support with the communist union in Delhi. For more on him, see an article on the web-site of the Progressive South Asian Exchange Net (www.proxsa.org).
Go see the movie. It's worth it. Then come home and read Denning's book and an essay by Staughton Lynd on the Steel struggle (it's in <Radical History,> 1972; it you can't locate it, I can send it to you). There are plenty of militant artists today who are the descendents of this tradition, whether they played their drums in Seattle or sang their songs in South Carolina. In his letter to the <Times,> Robbins wrote: 'The protests in Seattle took the Goodmans of the world by surprise, and as much as they try to write it off as an anomaly, Seattle may be the beginning of an irreversible storm.' Every storm needs it culture, and its cultural memory. We get a piece of the latter from 'The Cradle.' A piece of the rest comes from the Oakland based Hip-Hop crew The Coup ('Presto, Read the Communist Manifesto...');.