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Academy Awards protest

"Don't stand for Kazan!"

By Monica Moorehead

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated for over three hours outside the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on March 21. They were angered by the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award to film director Elia Kazan.

The huge controversy centers on the thoroughly treacherous role Kazan played as an informant during the horrific anti-communist McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s.

Television viewers were unaware that the protest was happening outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the 71st Academy Awards because the big-business media chose not to focus major attention on it.

But no one getting out of the long line of limousines could miss the multinational crowd of Black, Latino, Asian and white progressives carrying signs saying things such as "Kazan: Snitch" or "Elia Kazan: Benedict Arnold."

Placards also demanded freedom for African American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The Committee Against Silence Coalition had called the protest in response to the unanimous decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors to bestow the honorary Oscar on Kazan.

Kazan already had two Oscars for best director. But the criterion for receiving a special Oscar of this caliber is not based on contributions made by any one film. Instead, it is given to those who have made a unique, distinguishable impact on the film industry for many years.

The end of World War II ushered in the U.S. Cold War against the former Soviet Union, to be followed by the anti-communist witch hunts in this country led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The right wing scapegoated activists like Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on the frame-up charge of being "spies" for the Soviet Union.

The notorious House Un-American Activities Committee targeted thousands of progressive people because of their political and ideological beliefs. This Congressional body, headed by fanatical ultra-right-winger Sen. Joseph McCarthy, particularly singled out the most class-conscious, militant leaders in the unions to demonize.

HUAC also went after socially responsible writers, actors and directors in Hollywood who often made pictures criticizing racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

HUAC subpoenaed heads of studios, demanding that they name colleagues believed to be members of the Communist Party USA or sympathizers. Those who were named soon found themselves out of a job and reduced to social pariahs.

This was especially true of the Hollywood 10: screenwriters and directors who adamantly refused to inform against others. A number of the 10 ended up in jail, were forced into exile or had to write screen plays using pseudonyms. A number of those "blacklisted" committed suicide.

HUAC destroyed African American artist Paul Robeson's brilliant career because he dared to defend Soviet life.

On April 10, 1952, Elia Kazan cooperated with HUAC. Kazan ratted on eight people who he identified as being CP members in the 1930s.

Kazan's testimony has been credited with helping to consolidate Hollywood's "blacklist."

The message in one of Kazan's most honored films, "On the Waterfront," is that siding with reaction by selling out your friends to the U.S. government is honorable. The bad guys in the film, of course, are labor unionists.

`Refusing to stand for reaction'

While there was a vocal protest against Kazan outside the Academy Awards ceremony, inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion there was also a protest--but of a more moderate nature.

The CASC asked academy members not to applaud Kazan or give him a standing ovation when he was presented with the award.

What was the result? Army Archerd, Daily Variety's senior columnist, wrote in his column the next day: "Although those who approved were vocally audible, the silence of those who did not far outweighed them. I was seated in the theater in row T, where I was able to observe the entire show and, of course, particularly the award to Kazan.

"The applause may have sounded loud to the audience at home, but only 20 percent of the audience stood, and no one at all in my aisle or the one in front of me."

Some of the most notable celebrities who neither stood up for nor applauded Kazan were Oscar nominees Nick Nolte, Ian McKellen and Ed Harris, as well as Amy Madigan and Holly Hunter.

Actors Rod Steiger, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss and Carl Reiner were some of the most vocal opponents of Kazan receiving this award.

One positive aspect of this controversy is that many young people who have never heard about the McCarthyite witch hunts are asking about this period in U.S. history and about its devastating impact on the unions and progressive political movements.

There is no doubt that the role of the Hollywood executives during the witch hunt has had a tremendously conservatizing effect on the current nature of the Academy--beginning with the top echelons like the Board of Governors, who are as invisible and powerful as corporate chief executive officers.

Consider the fact that not one African American actor or craftsperson was nominated for an Academy Award this year.

One important lesson about the McCarthyite period of the 1950s is that reactionary epochs often give rise to progressive ones. What came out of the terrible anti-communist witch hunts was the civil rights movement in the South that put the fight for democratic rights for the Black masses high on the political agenda.

The fact that "Millions for Mumia" activists took part in the anti-Kazan demonstration is a clear indication that a new era of a militant, independent fight back against all forms of right-wing repression is bubbling to the surface.

No form of McCarthyite terror must ever be allowed to happen again.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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