Film

McCarthy-era blacklists transformed Hollywood. Will the same happen after the strikes? 

Strikes have already caused disruption to the year’s film release schedule, will they have an impact on films of the future?

Al Pacino in Serpico

Al Pacino’s NY cop risks his life to expose corruption in 1973’s Serpico. Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The summer 2023 cinema season, usually buzzy with premieres and festivals, has been coloured by an ongoing dispute between film studios and workers. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions, representing American writers and actors respectively, are striking over low residual pay from streaming sites, as well as concerns over the role of AI in TV and film. The strikes have already caused disruption to the year’s film release schedule, forcing studios to push highly anticipated titles like Dune: Part 2 and Challengers to 2024. 

It’s not the first time Hollywood studios have turned against their workers. In the 1940s and ’50s, more than 150 actors, writers, directors and craftspeople were blacklisted for suspected communist activity during the McCarthy era. The panic that led to it can be traced back to film industry strikes in the 1930s. Although this year’s strikes are not expected to lead to such upheaval, they are happening in an era of comparable social division between left and right. What effect can we expect them to have on the Hollywood of the future? 

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Clues may be found in Look Who’s Back: the Hollywood Renaissance & the Blacklist, currently touring UK cinemas. This season of seven films looks at the eventual return of blacklistees to the Hollywood that exiled them. They re-emerged in the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s, which saw films
defiantly authored by their directors, rather than the studios. In that era, “America was experiencing significant social and political upheaval,” says season curator Andy Willis, professor of film studies at the University of Salford. “Inspired by the fight for civil rights and the growing anti-war movement… these filmmakers discovered their leftist and progressive politics had the potential to once again connect with audiences.”  

The season includes resulting classics such as the anti-war film M*A*S*H, a collaboration between New Hollywood director Robert Altman and formerly blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr, and comedy-drama Claudine, which sees formerly blacklisted director John Berry foreground the story of a Black working-class woman, played to perfection by Oscar-nominated Diahann Carroll.  

Hal Ashby’s 1975 satirical comedy Shampoo also features in the season, starring formerly blacklisted actor Lee Grant, who would go on to win an Oscar for the role. When substantial acting jobs subsequently fizzled out as a result of Hollywood sexism against older women, Grant began making a series of astonishing documentary films about persecuted groups, including people facing homelessness, incarcerated women and the trans community. The empathy Grant brings to these films can be traced back to her experiences of solidarity while on the blacklist. Speaking to The Big Issue earlier this year, Grant stated that, “I wasn’t scared during the blacklist… I had a community. And it was a real fighting community.” 

The season is headlined by a 50th anniversary 4K remaster of Serpico, the true story of the eponymous New York City cop played by Al Pacino, whose struggles led to whistleblowing and an eventual landmark investigation into the corrupt force. Another collaboration between a New Hollywood director, Sidney Lumet, and a formerly blacklisted screenwriter, Waldo Salt, Serpico can be read as an allegory of Hollywood under the spell of McCarthyism. Like Serpico himself, blacklisted – and striking – writers and actors can feel the exhaustion and futility of trying to do good work within a corrupt institution.  

Testifying at the investigation into police corruption, Pacino as Serpico states, “I hope that police officers in the future will not experience the same frustration and anxiety that I was subjected to at the hands of my superiors because of my attempt to report corruption.” If Serpico can be read as an allegory for the isolation of the blacklist and the corrupt power of the studios, can we expect striking Hollywood workers to reflect their fight for rights in future work? 

“I think one of the potential effects might be a renewed interest in collectivity among industry workers. Whether that will lead to more socially conscious work is another question,” suggests Willis. “The industry in Hollywood would need to have another moment, like in the 1960s, when confidence in blockbusters wanes and smaller subjects come to the fore.” In an ideal world – free from small-c-conservative funders – filmmakers could emerge from the strike seeking more control over their ideas, breaking away from endless franchises as New Hollywood filmmakers broke from the studio system. Time will tell, but until then, the films in Look Who’s Back deliver hope for the possibilities of a new kind of radical filmmaking. 

Look Who’s Back: the Hollywood Renaissance & the Blacklist tours UK cinemas in September and October

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