Left of Hollywood: Cinema, Modernism, and the Emergence of U.S. Radical Film Culture

By Chris Robé | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Screening Race
THE ANTILYNCHING FILM, THE
BLACK PRESS, AND U.S. POPULAR
FRONT FILM CRITICISM

With the collapse of ¡Que Viva México! and the hopes of domestically mass-distributing radical films, U.S. Left film criticism lost its galvanizing framework of montage theory. The only remaining certainty was that a popular film criticism needed to be established in its wake. In the February 1935 issue of Filmfront, John Howard Lawson explained that film criticism needed to be “a combination of an analytical Marxist approach with a lively popular style” to produce “a revolutionary film magazine with a really wide circulation.”1 He continued: “To do this you need, more than anything else, meaty Hollywood stuff—and reviews which are surprising enough to create general interest, and yet not so sectarian as to repel the undeveloped sympathizer.”2 What exactly constituted this “meaty Hollywood stuff” remained unclear. But within a year the antilynching film would emerge as the answer.

The reason for the antilynching film’s centrality in U.S. Left film criticism was largely the result of the U.S. Popular Front’s ability to draw together divergent political interests into unified coalitions. As mentioned in the introduction, the Popular Front was an international movement initiated by the Communist Party to combat the rise of fascism, which had been seen in Italy, Japan, and, more recently, Germany. Disavowing its former sectarian approach, the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935 permitted its members to form alliances with former political enemies: socialists, liberals, anarchists, etc. No longer were bourgeois democracies conflated with bourgeois fascism, but were instead regarded as important allies in combating it. Because of such policies, the Popular Front gained significant strength in England, France, Spain, and the United States.3

In the United States, the Popular Front consisted of “a vast array of disjointed, fractious, highly differentiated sub-groups [that] could be united in a series of overlapping organizations.”4 In general, it took three political forms: “a social democratic electoral politics; a politics of anti-fascist and

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