Rebecca M. Schreiber,
Cold War Exiles in Mexico: US Dissidents and the Culture of Critical Resistance.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)
McCarthyism and the American Blacklist (or “Inquisition” as Cedric Belfrage so aptly termed it decades ago) had a devastating effect on progressive ideals in the “land of the free”. But certain gains also accompanied losses, especially in the role of American cultural activists who fled abroad. The European exile affecting talents such as John Berry and Joseph Losey has been documented elsewhere but, with the exception of biographies and reminiscences such as Refugees from Hollywood: A Journal of the Blacklist Years (2000), little has appeared about exiles who went South in a more positive direction than their rebellious Confederate predecessors a century before. They were really exiles and this recent study is welcome in terms of dealing with other artistic influences beyond the boundaries of film, though that area is also covered. Based on her Yale doctorial dissertation and developed further for a prestigious university press, this six chapter study framed by appropriate introduction and conclusion, represents an important work in cultural and historical studies extending our knowledge of a particular time and place even further. These cultural exiles represented a different form of escape other than that appearing in Peckinpah films involving a return to a nostalgic Edenic world. Escape for this group meant physical exile and intellectual critical resistance. For Schreiber, the work of this group “constitutes a form of critical transnationalism that challenged the official versions of U.S. national culture from the mid-194os to the mid-1960s. This development in their work was a direct consequence of their repression and dislocation by the U.S. government and the multiple communities of cultural producers established in Mexico. Members of the Cold War culture of political exile in Mexico produced film, visual artwork, and fictional and nonfictional writing that developed in numerous locations and drew upon multiple cultural traditions. These works were positioned both aesthetically and ideologically against the dominant post-World War II cultures of the United States and Mexico.” (p. 202)
This group encompassed African-American artists and writers who fled from the politically imposed concepts of artistic-expressionism and engaged in critical interrogation of official culture that was transnational rather than promoting Cold War artistic values. Several African-American artists and writers such as Elizabeth Catlett and Willard Motley used their Mexican exile to critique American racism and express solidarity with those suffering from colonial oppression while other celebrated blacklisted screenwriters such as Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler engaged in different types of oppositional strategies. While Trumbo represented Mexico from a more conventional Hollywood perspective, Butler moved towards alternative modes of filmmaking following his collaboration with Bunuel on The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Mexico 1952). He also wrote other screenplays as well as directing Torero! (Mexico 1956). How this change also influenced later work such as Joseph Losey’s Eva (France/Italy 1962) would have been a fascinating postscript but it is beyond the scope of this study. As well as documenting the political obstacles facing these exiles both in America and Mexico, the most original parts of this book involve Schreiber’s research concerning the role of fugitive African-American artists and their role in forming a new type of transnational aesthetics. This group was already familiar with Mexican forms of cultural production enabling them to make creative sense of their exile and engage in new forms of artistry opposed the officially approved a-political ones promoted by their former homeland in the Cold War. Issues of class and ethnic solidarity could be explored. Furthermore, writers such as Gordon Kahn and Willard Motley also gained from their exile in writing novels condemning American racism and the ugly, ideological side of American tourism. “Although much of his critique was excised by his editors, Motley’s original manuscripts demonstrate how African American writers articulated links between U.S. racism at home and abroad during the Cold War era.” (p. 203) Any brief book review cannot adequately cover this pioneering study and I can only recommend readers to explore this work in depth.
Parallels with our unhappy present time do not go unnoticed. Schreiber notices the pernicious overtones of the “War on Terror” as well as precedents existing in the Cold war era in terms of “how often laws used against foreign nationals are subsequently turned against U.S. citizens” (p. 213) involving ugly associations between the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that was repealed in 1990 and the twenty-first century U.S. Patriot Act that continued its predecessor’s repressive policies. Today, while right wing Republicans and Tea Party activists rigidly define what it means to be an American, this study of a past alternative movement may provide encouragement to those who may encounter what the subjects of this study did five decades before and begin their own types of critical resistance.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, USA.
Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010