About the Film
film overview | filmmakers' bios
It was castigated throughout its brief life by liberals, conservatives, and radicals, its ideology discredited, its dogmatism despised, its personae considered disreputable because of their subservience to Stalin, its patriotism challenged because of its complicity in espionage, yet the Communist Party USA, during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, attracted millions of Americans to support its causes and almost 100,000 men and women to enlist in its ranks. Those who remained steadfast through the Party’s trials and tribulations devoted the best part of their lives to it in the belief that communism was the last great hope for the emancipation of American workers from economic tyranny and for the emancipation of minorities from racism and sexism, for the defense of the United States from the threat of fascism, and for the ultimate creation of a radiant society based on freedom, equality, justice, and fraternity. Members and former members of the Party who were in the front lines of the struggles of the 1930s, and who suffered from the repressions of the 1950s, are the film’s main storytellers.
American Reds is the first documentary to comprehensively examine the history and the contemporary relevance of the Communist Party USA. Weaving powerful and compelling personal stories told by American Communists with objective historical sources and analysis, American Reds” illuminates the epic story of the efforts of the American Communist Party to realize their vision of creating an alternative America founded on socialist ideals. The story of American Reds is one of vision and blindness. The program explores the Party’s complex and contradictory efforts to fulfill the highest ideals of human freedom while subordinating itself to the dictatorial policies of the Soviet Union. The program neither demonizes nor romanticizes its subject, but explores its ironies and complexities, and its legacy for today.
1. The emergence and heyday of American communism 1920-1945
1920-1930: AMERICAN REDS begins with the emergence Communist Party USA in the 1920s after the success of the Russian Revolution. The Party becomes the foremost radical group in the United States during the Great Depression.
1930-1935: The Party fights against racism, fascism and for the rights of workers to organize. In the South, it wins freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black youths sentenced to death on a false charge of rape. It fails in its efforts to organize textile mills and agricultural workers in the South and California. Until 1934, the Party was a militant, dogmatic sect. With Hitler’s rise to power, the Party line changed to a more moderate one.
1936-1945: In 1936, the Party plays the major role in recruiting support for the Spanish Republic in its fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Party labor organizers successfully organize workers into labor unions in a number of industries under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Yet despite its idealism, the Party blindly supports Stalin during the infamous purges of the 1930s, during which millions of innocent men and women are murdered. The Party also supports the pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 that leads to World War II. It opposes any American aid to Great Britain in its war with Germany.
1941-1945: When the World War 11 begins and the United States and the Soviet Union join in common cause against Hitler, the Party once again reverses its line. It supports the war effort against Germany and Japan and in 1944 dissolves itself as a political party in an effort to become more American. Stalin denounces this move and the American leader of the Party Earl Browder is ejected. In 1945, the Party takes a hard line in supporting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
2. The Decline of the Party
1945-1950: During the Cold War, the Party is assailed for its pro-Soviet stand by the FBI; and by the anti-communist crusades of federal and state governments, educational and business institutions and the media. A small number of former communists are charged with perjury for not admitting their earlier involvement with the Party. Others are accused of spying but only the Rosenbergs are convicted. In 1949, the Soviet Union explodes the atomic bomb.
1950-1960: Thousands of communists are fired from jobs for during the McCarthy era. The Cold War intensifies as the United States goes to war against Communist North Korea in 1950. A number of Party leaders are convicted for teaching Marxism-Leninism and are jailed or imprisoned. Some leaders go into hiding in order to rebuild the Party in the future. The greatest shock comes when Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, publicly condemns Stalin for his murder of the Old Bolsheviks in 1956. Many communists make an effort to reform the American Party but there efforts are blocked. Most resign and by 1960, the Party is a shell of its former self.
Why contemporary audiences need to see this program.
The Communist Party USA, despite its grievous faults and failings, and its willful blindness to the tyranny of Soviet Union, still had vision of a better world. Communists recognized that the solution to America’s social, political and economic injustices required a resolution of the contradictions of our society; and that this could not take place within the existing social order. Communists were aware that any concrete gains the Party made for working people and against racism and sexism could easily be retracted under the present system. Equality, social justice and an equitable distribution of wealth require an alternative society, a new order of things. Thus it is that the battlefields on which American communists fought the inequities of American life remain the sites on which the exact same conflicts rage today-- racism, anti-unionism, unequal distribution of wealth, sexism and incipient fascism.