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Seeing Red

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  Judy Stone
San Francisco Chronicle

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American Communists Tell Their Own Story In the early '30s, 70 percent of the black men in Harlem were unemployed. Howard "Stretch" Johnson and his sister got jobs dancing at the Cotton Club. It was an all-black show for a whites-only audience. Old film footage of those acts brings the scene alive in Seeing Red, a feature length documentary on American Communists, which has its national theatrical premiere at the Clay today. "You know a lot of people say to radicals, "Go back where you came from," Johnson comments in the film. "If I was sent back where I came from, it would be across the street from a brewery on Hill Street in Orange, N.J., Jan. 30, 1915. That's where I was born. Some people say I brag about being a street nigger, but our family was in the gutter. The street was something we wanted to climb up to. We would have loved to get up on the curb." Johnson talks about why he became a Communist, spent 16 years as a party officer and was devastated by Kruschev's revelations of Stalin's crimes. Eventually, he turned into an alcoholic and it took years before he could emerge from that experience. He now teaches sociology at the State University of New York and was recently a consultant on Francis Coppola's new film, "Cotton Club." When Johnson speaks about he past and the future his zest and good humor seem undiminished. Johnson is one of 15 former and present members of the Communist Party who agreed to go on the record in Seeing Red. It is a lively, optimistic, somewhat romanticized, but not uncritical attempt by members of the '60s generation to understand an earlier radical spirit in America. The impulse to undertake this impossibly difficult and controversial challenge grew while the co-producers, Julia Reichert and James Klein, were working on Union Maids, a documentary about labor activists that was nominated for an Academy Award. In the process of making that documentary, the film makers only gradually learned the extent to which the Communist party had participated in early union organizing drives. Seeing Red is a valiant, if not totally successful, effort to exorcise the stereotypes that dominate American thinking about Communists, generated in part, by Ronald Reagan, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Hubert Humphrey. They all appear in film clips referring to Communists as "rats," "evil and malignant," "conspiratorial." The forces that drew many idealists and people who just plain wanted a better life to the Communist Party during the Depression are illustrated through the interviews, intercut with rare archival film footage. They spotlight 50 years of effort to organize unions, achieve social welfare gains and fight against fascism. Nearly 1 million people "passed through" the Communist Party in that period. The top membership was estimated at only 100,000 during the peak years of 1938 and 1945. The film reports it is now down to an estimated 8000 to 10,000. Obviously 15 people out of 400 interviewed can give only a hint of their own characters, motivations and experiences. There are no interviews with those who dropped off "the train of history" during the Stalin "show trials" of old Bolsheviks in the '30s, the Soviet-Nazi pact or the invasion of Czechoslovakia or those too bitter about their experiences to agree to interviews. But, after the Khrushchev bombshell, the film cites letters to the Daily Worker that are extremely critical of the secrecy in Communist life, the lack of free speech and "the deadly influence of Stalinism." Commenting on the way Communists would rationalize certain unspecified acts and attitudes, one San Francisco woman says, "I sincerely believe today that there is an extraordinary connection between ends and means..." Another testifies to the hard-won realization "that we didn't have all the truths." A third: "I would not submit to that kind of discipline again." Dorothy Healy, a California leader who joined the party when she was only 14 and quit in 1972, admits: "I was a little Stalin." Film clips show her as a young beauty, living with some cotton workers on strike in Southern California, sharing the "barest kind of existence." Later she talks about what such experiences meant: "I don't remember one person ever feeling it was a sacrifice... We got more enrichment, we learned more, we acquired more ourselves than any other comparable experience has ever given us." At times a viewer feels that the film makers like Hollywood directors have opted for the most dramatically appealing characters: among them a short, plump, vivacious grandmother active in the senior citizens movement, and San Francisco long-shoreman and Spanish Civil War veteran Bill Bailey. With his Joe Palooka-face and Hells Kitchen "woiking"-class accent, Bailey shows a welcome sense of humor, despite the pain in his voice when he talks about his time on the waterfront and the years he was blacklisted for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Julia Reichert is rather too gentle an interviewer to probe more deeply and acutely into their stories. By developing the documentary with so much vitality and "entertainment" quality including music and commentary by Pete Seeger the filmmakers fail to reveal any of the excruciating dullness of doctrinaire Communist thinking, its alienating dogmatism, the stultifying intolerance of other points of view, which includes a little "index" of verboten books by Koestler, Orwell, Silone and others who recognized "The God That Failed" long before these witnesses to their times. Despite the documentary's shortcomings, the film makers have performed a valuable service in their insistence upon looking at the human faces behind a movement.

  Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times

Full Review:

Seeing Red Puts Lives of 30's Radicals in Focus "Don't mourn for a fighter who made a mistake and lost, but mourn the suckers who never bothered putting up a fight." --Pete Seeger That pretty well sums up the spirit of Seeing Red, a documentary about Americans who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and hung on through jolts such as the Hitler-Stalin pact, stubbornly defending their vision in the face of increasing evidence that Russia was not exactly practicing what Marx had preached. The movie is not a history of the party, of an examination of the rights and wrongs of specific political issues, but an examination of belief and faith. It introduces us to a group of people who had the courage to defy the majority and join an unpopular cause, and hang in there in the face of persecution at home and bad news from overseas and then it has the curiosity to ask them how things are going now, after the great dream of their youth has had to be revised. All but one of the subjects of Seeing Red have left the Communist Party. Some left early. Others held on until the great disillusioning experience of the 1960s, Kruschev's public denunciation of Stalin. For many of them, party membership was a balancing act between pure ideals and corrupt politics: They shared a vision but fought among themselves, were infiltrated by spies and turncoats, were betrayed by Stalin's politics of repression and accommodation and were persecuted by American witch-hunts. Today they are older in years, but still seem young in spirit; maybe it's good for you to believe, no matter what you believe. They sit in their middle-class living rooms or offices or in the sunshine on their lawns, and talk of years when the party line seemed more radically American than anything coming out of Washington. And then we see footage that illustrates their words. First, old newsreel film of Red-baiters like Herbert (I Led Three Lives) Philbrick, and Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and J. Edgar Hoover. Then footage of strikes and sit-ins and boycotts and demonstrations led by the communists. And then photographs of party leaders in action, accompanied by memories of those who compromised and those who did not. The specific left-wing issues of the 1930s through the 1950s are not the subject of the film. Instead, it wants to look into the eyes of these survivors, and see how deeply they were scarred by what most of them now see as Russia's betrayal of the revolution. They seem to me to have come through pretty well. They still stick to their social ideals. they still think the "two old parties" are pretty much tied in with the status quo. But they all seem exhausted by the ideological infighting of their past more interested in talking common sense than in winning a point. The movie was made by James Klein and Julia Reichert, whose last film, shot in Chicago was the remarkable Union Maids, about three working-class women who organized their co-workers in the 1930s and went on to become grassroots labor leaders. As we saw the women in the first film, perhaps we wondered how the fierce fire of their younger years had weathered the passage of time. Now we can see.


"A fine, tough companion piece to Union Maids. Seeing Red is less about dogma than about American idealism. It's social history of a high order."
Vincent Canby The New York Times


"Tremendous! Seeing Red evokes a lifetime of political memories. Exceptionally well researched, fair and unbiased, it is a balanced and thorough look at the American Communist Party."
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