Trumbo Tackles Blacklist in New Film

Trumbo, a documentary film released today, tells the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s courage in resolutely refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the darkest days of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 50s. The film has great relevance for today’s troubled times, and serves as a powerful reminder of why principles matter and how the failure to abide by them can result in lasting damage.

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most celebrated screenwriters of his day. As one of the “Hollywood 10,” he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. For this, he was sentenced to prison and along with hundreds of other less famous workers in his industry was banned from employment in Hollywood for more than a decade.

The film is directed by Peter Askin and written by Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo. Askin cast a set of leading film stars (Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, David Strathairn, Nathan Lane, Donald Sutherland and more) — to read from dozens of Trumbo’s remarkable private letters. He uses wonderful archival film clips and recent interviews to weave together a powerful tale and an important lesson from the McCarthy period.

The ACLU is grateful to be chosen as a beneficiary of a percentage of the proceeds of the film. It is a very generous gift on the part of the filmmakers, but I could only think that the award is being bestowed to a group whose record is “most improved.”

For in those troubled times, the ACLU was often much too timid, and at worst, conflicted and counterproductive. The debate within the ACLU in many ways mirrored the treacherous debate in Hollywood. Leading forces within the organization insisted that the protection of “national security” would provide the greatest protection for civil liberties. Although the ACLU helped to defend the Hollywood 10, the organization was still anxious to eschew any label as a “communist front” and even established an internal “loyalty oath,” a tool that some ACLU leaders believed would bolster the organization’s credibility and therefore allow it to be an even more effective defender of civil liberties.

It was a Faustian bargain. In hindsight, we know that it weakened our defense of the First Amendment at that critical time, and diminished the organization’s early legitimacy. It also created great dissent among some of the fledgling new ACLU affiliates. Fortunately, it did serve as a bitter lesson that helped forge the organization’s future role as an unrelenting advocate of civil liberties.

Fast forward through the next 50 years, and no one would suggest that the ACLU has been too timid or compromising. Especially during the past seven years as we have witnessed perhaps the greatest assault ever on civil liberties, the ACLU has responded with great clarity to White House threats and actions to limit civil liberties in the name of national security. The ACLU has not only risen to the challenge, but we have boldly fought back on every front during this similar period.

Perhaps no action has been clearer than the recent establishment of the John Adams Project, which provides direct representation to detainees facing prosecution at Guantánamo because of our grave concern that the military commissions process is an affront to justice. The ACLU believes that the military commission’s authorization of the use of coerced evidence possibly derived from torture, secret evidence, and hearsay is unconstitutional and counter to our constitutional traditions. This abuse of power requires our extraordinary leadership and effort. Clearly we have cast off the misgivings of the 1950s that kept less popular clients at bay.

Dalton Trumbo paid a very high price for adhering to his principles. The new film portrays well the havoc that was wreaked upon him, his friends and his family. It also shows how few were willing to stand with him during this perilous time and the bitter legacy when liberty is lost.

The film also underscores the vital role that the arts play in providing the narrative that brings these important principles to life. It is quite a moving experience to see some of today’s most celebrated actors read the stirring commentary of one of our most accomplished and persecuted writers.

In recognition of the importance of this platform, the ACLU has launched a new program, “Rights/Camera/Action,” which uses the arts and popular culture as a forum for civil liberties discussion with artists and entertainers to encourage deeper conversations that tap into our core civil liberties values.

Today as the ACLU marks its 88th year, it is a much wiser and stronger organization. We are proud and also deeply humbled — to be recognized by the makers of the movie Trumbo with their support of our essential work.

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The DC Gun Ban was over-turned... didn't ACLU hear about it? No post saying it is a great victory?

Lonnie Wilson

I'm an ACLU member and I have to agree with what anon is saying above: Why is the ACLU completely ignoring the fact that all 9 Supreme Court justices declared the second amendment to be an individual right, and a majority determined handgun bans and other forms of very strict gun control are unconstitutional, the fact that ACLU has been ignoring it, calling DC a "victim" of this new "reinterpretation", calling it a "constitutional straight-jacket". Would you seriously consider using the term "straight-jacket" against states and cities if we were talking about a Free Speech or Free Expression case? a Fourth Amendment case?

As an ACLU member and trying to get people to sign up to becoming a member due to the various unconstitutional actions that the executive has been partaking. The biggest problem I have to convince them is over the issue of the Second Amendment. Now, with ACLU calling DC the "victim" of a "reinterpretation" of 2nd amendment case (which is patently false if you had actual knowledge of second amendment issues), it makes it MUCH more difficult for me to recruit members. I'm a card carrying member of the ACLU, a progressive liberal, and I'm pro-gun rights under the 2nd and 9th amendments to our US constitution.

For ACLU to continually ignore the issue, to call DC the "victim" for their failed and unconstitutional policies (which also include warrant-less searches, checkpoints, etc) undercuts the moral authority of the ACLU to defend the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 9th amendments. ACLU is figuratively tap dancing on a land mine on this subject, and there's no excuse for it considering the Heller decision.

I will not support an organization that cherry picks rights. I'm seriously considering letting my membership lapse if this continues. Why doesn't ACLU actually make a positive comment about Heller?

Thomas Hayfield

This case is ridiculously being elevated to even being worthy of attention by the SC. I don't know by what serendipity of events a case which clearly should be decided in local jurisdictions gets to the SC, but it's absurd. The Fox Faux News people of the world would be proud of the needy lawyers who push it through the courts. I like the thought that the home invaders of the world are lurking. Those include the gun-toting Bill O'Reilly's of the world who really SUPPORT intrusion by any means at all--electronically or with guns. He and these predatory litigants are really just here--or there-- to deny you peace of mind. Who knew the Fox News people of the tube have civilian counterparts in law offices.
PS I have been blacklisted by a team of politicos and ne'er-do-wells and am painfully aware of the power of the siege that results in isolation. I soon hope to speak publicly on my experience being targeted. My defense of the Top 10--The Bill of Rights--is unwavering.

Mr. Jones

I'm pleased to know that a portion of Trumbo will go to the ACLU. I would not have known that otherwise, and given the fact that I am letting my membership lapse over the Heller decision, I now know to avoid Trumbo as well.

I wasn't teasing when I said that there would be NO further support from me to the ACLU.

Nathan Smith

I just got off the phone with someone from the ACLU asking me for a donation. I really like some of the work they do but then other parts are just ass backwards. They try so hard to avoid the second amendment. WHY??? Instead I get pages and pages of homosexual rights sent to me my mail and email.

I told the nice lady on the phone that I already contribute a large sum of my money to the campaign for liberty.

I didn't want to get into the whole reason why with her. I find the gay right issue rather funny though. They want to fight so hard for things that really I don't want myself as a heterosexual. I do not need nor do I want the government having any sort of knowledge about who I marry. So to send thousands of $$$ to a organization that wants to fight for something as silly as the government accepting gay marriage to me it just a distraction from real issues.

ACLU really is a great organization when they put their united might to a issue. They just are very misguided.

I am much more concerned with protecting every individuals rights, not one groups nor do I want to pick and chose which rights I protect. ACLU step up and be a real leader and not a petty group of people promoting their own agenda and calling it something else.

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