James Gunn, Old Tweets and the Return of the Hollywood Blacklist (Guest Column)

James Gunn at London Premiere of Guardians of the Galaxy - Getty - H 2018
Jeff Spicer/Getty

In 1951, Laurence A. Johnson was one of the most powerful men in the television industry, not because of any programming he put on the air but because of the people he kept off it.

A grocer from Syracuse, New York, Johnson made a second career out of anti-communist agitation, targeting actors he deemed subversive and pressuring the networks to blacklist them. He hit TV where it hurt, in its commercials, telling sponsors he would hang signs near their products asking consumers, "Do you want part of your purchase price to be used hiring Communists?" Johnson owned only four supermarkets, but from Madison Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard his corporate targets buckled at the knees. "We would disapprove of hiring any artist whose conduct in any respect, 'political' or otherwise, has made him or is likely to make him distasteful to the public," declared the president of the American Tobacco Company in a statement of surrender.

You probably see where I'm going with this. These days, censorious activists are using the digital signage of social media to intimidate companies, particularly entertainment conglomerates, into blacklisting the 21st century version of all that is un-American: the un-woke, either now or in their false consciousness past. We may not be in a new blacklist era, but not since the postwar anti-communist crusade have so many artists been rendered unemployable for something they said.

Hardly a week goes by without a new casualty caught in the viral vortex. The most recent to be tagged and bagged is James Gunn, director of the terrific Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its so-so 2017 sequel, who composed some vulgar tweets back in the days before he became an A-list director. Reacting with warp speed, to mix franchises, Disney ejected Gunn from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a statement that the first leader of Disney would have surely co-signed (Walt Disney testified as a friendly witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947), the present Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn declared, "The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James' Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio's values, and we have severed our business relationship with him."

Gunn — and the other targets acquired by digital hit squads right and left — are not really equivalent to the Hollywood artists rendered persona non grata in postwar America. The crucial difference is that the original anti-communist blacklist was backed up by the coercive power of the state, incited by the investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee and facilitated by the surveillance of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. It was also rigorously enforced by the MPAA, which in 1947, on behalf of the major studios, pledged never to employ a known communist. 

Yet if a Twitter mob is not quite the same as a pair of FBI agents delivering subpoenas, there are enough parallels between then and now to be discomfiting to anyone concerned with due process, free expression or a simple fair shake.

As with the original, an ad hoc network of pressure groups and self-appointed sentinels probe the backgrounds of artists for incendiary sentiments that may date back decades. During the Cold War, an artist's involvement in the progressive activism of the 1930s — a rally attended or a petition signed — could be dredged up as smoking-gun evidence of fidelity to Moscow. The age of digital search engines has made the opposition research infinitely easier, even as the range of potential transgressions has expanded exponentially: boorish behavior, offensive language, misfired attempts at humor, harebrained lapses of judgement and utterances of unpopular opinion.

Another similarity is the ritual of the abject mea culpa. Accused of communist sympathies in 1952, the lifelong liberal Edward G. Robinson made amends by penning an article for American Legion magazine titled "How the Reds Made a Sucker Out of Me." Desperate for work, John Garfield tried to expunge his left-wing past with an article called "How I Fell for a Left Hook." Garfield died of a heart attack before the piece could be published, a death his friend the playwright Clifford Odets blamed on the incessant hounding from anti-Communist politicians.

The modern-day version of the Cold War apologia is a Twitter thread or Facebook post that recants the offense and promises to redouble one's efforts on behalf of woke-ness. Recently, the actor-director Mark Duplass suggested that open-minded liberals might want to consider following on Twitter the right-wing provocateur Ben Shapiro. Caught in a digital crossfire, Duplass quickly composed an act of contrition. "I'm really sorry," he pleaded. "I now understand that I have to be more diligent and careful."

The new cycle of j'accusing may surpass the original in one creepy way: its penchant for deletion and erasure. Like a Politburo photograph from the Stalin era, retouched to reflect the current political hierarchy, it is not enough to say the malefactor no longer works here; in fact, he never did. When the comedian and television host Chris Hardwick was accused by an ex-girlfriend of sexual and emotional abuse, he temporarily lost not only his television show but had his name scrubbed from Nerdist, the website he founded. (He has since been "cleared" and welcomed back by AMC and NBC.)

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the original blacklist was its reliance on whispers and rumors, the way the mere whiff of controversy might foreclose job opportunities and consign a suspect artist to career oblivion. At least the 151 people enumerated in the blacklister's guidebook Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television (1950) understood why their phone stopped ringing. Today, in casting sessions and preproduction meetings, one can be sure that artists are being eliminated from consideration on the basis of toxic chatter — either locked deep in the web or delivered the old-fashioned way, face to face.

Hollywood's Cold War blacklist wasn't dealt a body blow until 1960 when two gutsy producers, Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas, hired the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, under his own name, for Exodus and Spartacus, respectively. Although the ongoing moral-cultural-political panic has yet to see its own tipping point moment of defiance and sanity, the reaction of the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy has been very encouraging. In an exceptionally eloquent and thoughtful open letter to fans and friends, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and others voiced their support for Gunn and their fervent hope that "Americans from across the political spectrum can ease up on the character assassinations and stop weaponizing mob mentality." Bautista has gone further, saying working for Disney is "pretty nauseating" given the studio's treatment of Gunn.

They were also diplomatic enough not to remind Disney that the severing of a business relationship can work both ways.

Thomas Doherty is professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist (Columbia University Press, 2018).