- Hollywood Riots: Violent Crowds and Progressive Politics in American Film by Doug Dibbern
Doug Dibbern's excellent new book analyzes the importance of political filmmakers who questioned American postwar conservatism by releasing films in the early 1950s about race riots and the dangers of right wing reporting. Dibbern beautifully interweaves history, the politics of the film industry and the power of the films themselves to inform his analysis of the rapidly changing politics and demographic shifts during this era. He argues that independent filmmakers and writers drew from real local events to explicitly challenge the media's tendency to literally whitewash stories about racial violence and union riots as well as Hollywood's increasing complicity with the growing conservative cultural climate which had been dramatically precipitated by HUAC's witch-hunt throughout the major studios. Although this cycle of political films lasted only briefly, Dibbern concludes that these political filmmakers directly confronted problems of racial anxiety and contributed an important and brave voice to social conversations that Americans were not able to access through other media.
Dibbern divides his book into three parts. In the first, he meticulously analyzes the historical context in which independent filmmakers produced political films that forced viewers to confront social realities in an increasingly complex society and film industry that was often lead astray by destructive collective behavior. In the second part, Dibbern looks more closely at Los Angeles, Hollywood and the politics of rioting, striking and class brutality that altered the industry during the 1940s and 1950s. The third part of the book analyzes four carefully selected films that illustrate the impact of political filmmaking during this era: The Lawless (1950), Underworld Story (1950), The Sound of Fury (1950) and The Well (1951). [End Page 80]
In the first two sections of the book, Dibbern systematically unpacks the circumstances and trends that shaped postwar anxieties and politics and informed Hollywood's responses to racial politics. He argues that audiences were ready and eager to view films that addressed racial violence and to be confronted by their own prejudices and that of mainstream American culture. Many Americans could relate in some way to the fear of mob violence and to the social unrest that characterized so much of postwar society. Dibbern demonstrates how effectively these filmmakers offered political messages and social commentary that resonated with a viewing audience that had become disillusioned with the press and was seeking honesty and grit on the screen.
In the last section, Dibbern looks closely at the four previously cited films, all of which were based on real events. In each chapter, he explains the production, release and reception of each film and then analyses key scenes, filmic style and the major themes found within each. Dibbern points out that although these filmmakers--Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield, Russell Rouse and Leo Popkin--did not know each other, their films contain similar political viewpoints and follow comparable plot points by beginning with a particular moment of racial prejudice, dramatizing the build-up of tension and argument among the various groups involved, and then reaching its denouement with an outbreak of violence. Each film also features scenes of media frenzy, mob violence and the inevitable harm inflicted on an innocent character. These similarities seem to indicate that the directors and screenwriters wanted to make films that unabashedly confronted the culture of censorship and repression under which Hollywood was suffering. Dibbern persuasively argues that the stories told by these "liberal message movies with a realist aesthetic" (153) reflected Hollywood filmmakers' criticism of the political climate of their industry and of racial politics throughout the United States.
Dibbern's methodology and emphasis on political content marks this book as truly original. The author appreciates and responds to well-respected film scholars such as Larry Ceplair, Steven Englund and Thom Andersen, who have written pivotal and influential articles about Hollywood progressivism and Red Hollywood. Dibbern's own work goes beyond these topics by investigating the tail end of the period and thus extending academic understanding of the evolution of liberalism and progressivism...