‘Trumbo’ evokes Red Scare hearings in Detroit

Ken Coleman

There is a saying that art imitates life, and in the case of the film “Trumbo,” it reminds us of America’s ugly past that in one instance had a Detroit connection.

The film’s star, Bryan Cranston, has been nominated for best actor for the 88th annual Academy Awards on Sunday. He portrays Dalton Trumbo, the 1940s Hollywood screenplay writer who is swept up in the wave of Red Scare fervor during the Cold War era. Cranston isn’t considered the favorite for the Oscar — Leonardo DiCaprio is for his work in “The Revenant.” But the timing of this year’s ceremony coupled with the anniversary of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Detroit make for a painful but important look back.

Trumbo testified before the notorious committee on Oct. 28, 1947. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify fully before the Capitol Hill unit, which was created to investigate allegations and suspicion of communist influences in the motion picture industry. Subsequent to the hearings, Hollywood blacklisted Trumbo and the others.

In 1950, he served 11 months in a federal penitentiary in Ashland, Kentucky. Afterward, Trumbo resumed working clandestinely and won Oscars for “Roman Holiday” and “The Brave One.” He later penned the screenplay for the epic film “Spartacus.” Trumbo died in 1976.

A couple of years later the Hollywood Ten hearings, HUAC with a different set of targets stormed into Detroit, the home of organized labor, and held hearings beginning on Feb. 25, 1952. For many years those with socialist and communist leanings had a close relationship with unions like the UAW, CIO and others. Included in those who were issued congressional subpoenas were local men with strong labor ties:

■Ernest Goodman, attorney

■The Rev. Charles A. Hill, pastor, Hartford Avenue Baptist Church

■Coleman A. Young, former executive secretary, Wayne County CIO

George W. Crockett Jr., a future Detroit Recorder’s Court judge and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, served as legal counsel for both Hill and Young. He, like Trumbo, served a federal sentence in the Ashland lockup. In 1948, Crockett defended 11 communist leaders including Gus Hall, the head of the U.S. Communist Party. They were charged with violating the Smith Act. While defending his clients, Crockett and four team attorneys were cited by Judge Harold Medina for contempt of court.

On Feb. 28 in Detroit HUAC legal counsel Frank Tavenner said to Young “I understood from your statement you would like to help us.”

A feisty Young snapped: “You have me mixed up with a stool pigeon.”

In spite of intense posturing from congressional zealots, Dalton Trumbo, Charles A. Hill and Coleman A. Young resumed their careers with varying levels of distinction and honor. Trumbo continued to work in Hollywood and earn awards. Hill lived nearly 20 years longer as pastor of one of the nation’s most influential black homes of worship. Young, of course, helped to write the 1963 Michigan Constitution, served as a member of the state Senate and became the city’s first African-American mayor and its longest serving chief executive officer.

Not many would have predicted on the day they were summoned with HUAC subpoenas that their futures would hold any level of fortune.

Ken Coleman is a Detroit-based author and historian.