While no reviews are currently allowed on Being the Ricardos, there is one aspect of the film that I believe boosts the film from good to great. Aaron Sorkin’s strong but subtle cautionary message about the dangers of witch hunts, Red Scares, Blacklists, and yes, the mid-century post-war version of “Cancel Culture.”
While reviews are still under embargo, it isn’t a spoiler to say that Being the Ricardos takes place over one week in the lives of Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz. It is the week a major story in the press breaks that Lucy once registered as a member of the Communist Party back in the 1930s. That is the stressor used as the backdrop to tell the rest of the story: Lucy is pregnant, Lucy has a show to put on, Lucy has to fight for control of the show as the smartest person in the room, Lucy has to save her marriage.
Most people now, on the Left at least, see the danger posed by McCarthy as far worse than the danger of Communism. Many of the horrors of Communist regimes haven’t been emphasized in American culture or education, not like, say, the Holocaust has been. But to understand how we got to McCarthy it is necessary to understand why the fear of Communism was so pervasive in American life from the time of the Russian Revolution (1917) to the end of the Cold War (Reagan’s presidency, essentially).
Why this story right now? Well, I think you can probably figure that out. Sorkin does not directly indict the modern-day witch hunts we’re seeing now, the way-too-close for comfort parallels with the new blacklist. But there is enough in this film that it’s subtext could be seen to resemble the sly cautionary messages of dissent in, say, Sidney Lumet’s Network, or other films that revealed undercurrents of change that foreshadowed a shift in public opinion.
Network was written as social sentiments were beginning to evolve and the pendulum was starting to swing away from the Left and back toward the Right. One could argue it conveys a trace of anti-feminism message in the Faye Dunaway character — unhappy, career-driven, bad in bed — and perhaps even a slight commentary on what became of the Black Power movement (the Angela Davis character complaining about her time slot on network television). In short, it was a movie that very much reflected the tides turning to a new conservativism, in its own way: and the need to wrestle the country back from the uncontrollable forces that had overtaken it. Network was anti-establishment to be sure, but framed as the way the establishment had co-opted a veneer of a counter-culture message (much like it has now) and everything became about profit over human welfare.
In Being the Ricardos, Sorkin seems to understand, or sense, that it’s time to start bringing up issues that most people are still too afraid to talk about. He offers up a fairly balanced view, showing how some people might have found aspects of Communism attractive during the Depression, and how other people might have feared Communism 20 years later. And why it would have been a knotty conflict in Lucy’s marriage to Desi Arnaz who had fled Cuba after the Communist revolution burned down his house and threw his father in jail.
Most people today, especially young people, only know about McCarthyism though the lens of a handful of famous film clips. They know that it was an embarrassing moment in our history and one that represents a dangerous political spectacle that should never be repeated. But most people don’t fully understand how McCarthy gained such prominence and why he rose to power in the first place. They don’t really understand the fear of Communism because the top-level takeaway from that time is that McCarthy was the bad thing; Communism itself wasn’t.
I’m not here to argue that Marxism or Communism, as ideologies, are “bad” — though we all know many Conservatives would have no problem saying that. At its essence Marxism is a socio-economic theory that seeks to remove status, class structure, and meritocracy and instead create a utopia where everyone shares equally for their contribution as workers, and no one is “better” than anyone else. In contrast to the Gilded Age or the age of the aristocracies, a system that sought to respect the downtrodden and elevate the underclass, it’s easy to understand why the changes Communism/Marxism promised were able to gain traction when it did.
To fully understand how the fear of communism became a fear of the communist-hunters in this country, it’s necessary to understand two things:
1) Why were so many Americans afraid of a communist takeover to begin with, and 2) Why were so many leftists drawn to Communism, appealing especially to the artistic communities from Greenwich Village to Hollywood. While there is some debate over whether Lucille Ball was ever a “commie sympathizer,” the movie really only deals with how she discussed the issue with her husband to salvage her marriage and to save her hit show.
My guess: She probably signed on without being devoted adherent, because it was simply a fashionable way to think back in the 1930s and 1940s. It was the pro-union, pro-labor ideology that ran counter to the massive wealth that dominated during the Gilded Age that preceded it. There is also good evidence that the sole reason she had registered to vote as a member of the Communist Party in 1936 was to placate her grandfather who had been an ardent supporter of Eugene Debs. Whatever the reason she had for signing that voter registration card, it became the equivalent of an errant tweet from the past that someone dug up as a gotcha. As America’s favorite TV wife, it was essential that she address the accusations as the scandal that some wanted it to be. Anything less than a sympathetic explanation would have meant the end of her career and possibly the end of her marriage to Desi.
If you don’t know, here is a short history.
The first Red Scare in this country came before the Great Depression, right after the Russian Revolution and the end of the First World War. The second Red Scare came shortly after the Second World War, and much of that was due to the widespread support of communism coming out of the Depression to manage the economic crisis, the advent of labor unions, as well as the concerning spread of communism across central Europe in countries newly occupied by the Soviet Union, as well as in Asia, most notably China.
First, why were Americans so afraid of Communism? When I was growing up, as a lifelong Democrat, I believed that those who valued profit over people would be against it because it was a Capitalism destroyer. I believed probably what a lot of Generation Z folks believe, that it was a way to lift the poor, punish the rich, and make things more equal. Healthcare, housing, and education were mostly paid for. Your job was simply your duty as a member of the community.
In practice, though, at least from what we know of Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Fidel Castro’s Cuba — for a Communist state to succeed, crimes against humanity are not only necessary but virtually encouraged. As Stalin once famously said, “If you kill one man it’s murder. If you kill a million it’s a statistic.”
Minute 21 of this documentary is where the bad stuff starts. And if you don’t know already, now you do:
Those who are pro-Communist are very often adamant true believers. They believe everything must be sacrificed in order to implement pure Marxist ideology. Most Americans don’t really know, and certainly aren’t taught, just how bad these regimes were, so we’re simply left with the residual idea that those who fear the word Communism are just hysteria-driven Republicans. Take a trip down memory lane with Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China and it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. I was surprised to have never known much of what actually went on. Why not?
Well, part of it has to do with the propaganda machine in place all through the 1930s, the 1940s and even today, with China out in force protecting its message and its image in all printed materials, media and messaging. In fact, the smackdown on Communist influence in Hollywood sprang from actual Communism being infused into screenplays deliberately. For instance, Donald Trumbo who was blacklisted genuinely did want to write Communist ideology into his work. He didn’t see anything wrong with it and felt it to be a good solution to the problems in a Capitalist-driven society. Significantly, to place the seismic shift in prevailing attitudes in the context of movies, it was less than 10 years after the McCarthy hearings that Dr. Zhivago won 10 Oscars.
So much has changed it is probably hard to imagine why the fear was so all-consuming that it led to wars, hot and cold, not to what it did to artists, writers, actors, and countless government employees, not to mention creating a climate of fear throughout the country. Because the Rosenberg’s were exposed as spies for the Soviet Union, fear that anyone could be a spy was pervasive. That led to the Blacklist and eventually to McCarthy.
What finally stopped McCarthy? President Eisenhower, another Republican. Probably no one will watch this video below, so the tl;dr is that Eisenhower believed what McCarthy was doing had become a destructive force in American culture and was now targeting members of the military as Communists. So Ike launched a campaign to take down McCarthy.
Even though McCarthy had been condemned, and even though public opinion was shifting by the time the Lucille Ball story broke in the press, a simmering fear of Communism remained.
I can’t say for sure Sorkin was making a subtle comment on today’s purges and persecutions that recall the blacklist era. But I can say that Being the Ricardos shows how easy it is to destroy a person you think you know because someone accuses them of something you fear. Any artist commenting on what is happening today will be well-remembered, just as Rod Serling is respected for threading so many episodes of the Twilight Zone with subtle messages about the fear and paranoia of the 1950s, just as Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, was about drawing the parallel between the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials and the McCarthy hearings.
While Eisenhower was on the Right, he was confronting an dangerous extremism that had arisen on the Right. We surely have some of that now also on the Right. But the fear, the hysteria, the blacklisting in 2021 is coming from the Left because the Left is the side that is more concerned with reputation, purity, and image. My readers here hate to hear this — they can’t abide criticism of the Left. But who controls Hollywood? Education? Science? Journalism? Big Tech? So, yeah.
It’s why even Sorkin is facing recriminations for casting Javier Bardem and not a Cuban actor. We can expect various other thought crime accusations that may or may not emerge from this, as any director releasing a film today can testify. We just accept such ruckus and very few are willing to stand up against it. Thus, it will fall on the shoulders, eventually, of the writers to send messages that wake people up to the dangers of purges and persecutions.
Fear does strange things to people. We don’t manage it well. We especially don’t manage it well when people remain constrained by fear. True in 1692, true in 2021. I expect this will elevate Being the Ricardos beyond a movie about a famous married couple and their wildly popular television show. It’s really about that palpable fear of accusations and a climate that punishes people for what they believe, what they did in the past, and whether or not they meet the fashionable standards of purity.
Sorkin does not make this preachy or obvious. It isn’t overblown or a big part of the movie, but it’s there. And that is enough.