The anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s destroyed many lives. Nedrick Young’s was one of them.
Young was an up-and-coming actor who had appeared in a number of films – including the 1950 cult classic “Gun Crazy” – when, in 1953, he was called into the office of studio mogul Jack Warner and told to sign an oath declaring that he was not, and had never been, a member of the Communist Party. Young saw this as trampling on his First Amendment rights and part of a larger witch hunt, and responded “Absolutely not.”
That made him unemployable in the film industry – or so it seemed – which makes “The Defiant One,” a documentary about Young and the Hollywood blacklist by Fayetteville-based Moonlight Communications, a sobering look into politics both past and present.
“We found out about this because Elizabeth MacRae (Young’s widow and a Fayetteville native) moved to the end of our street here in Fayetteville,” says Jan Johnson, who with partner Pat Wright made the film. “She brought over the testimony of her former husband, Nedrick Young, and we read his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American activities, and felt he was remarkably courageous. We got interested in the subject of the blacklist and his role in it.”
Young was not the only person to be blacklisted, nor was he the most prominent (Eddie Albert, Lee Grant, John Ireland and playwright Lillian Hellman were some of the more famous names). But his place in history is assured because even though denied the right to work under his own name, as a screenwriter using the pseudonym “Nathan E. Douglas,” he won an Oscar for the 1958 Sidney Poitier-Tony Curtis classic “The Defiant Ones.”
“Ned always said his Academy Award helped break the blacklist within the motion picture industry,” says MacRae. “There was a rule at the time that no blacklisted artist could be nominated for a film.” That rule was eventually rescinded, but Young’s name was not restored to the film until 1993, 25 years after his death. And although Young wrote other pseudonymous stories and screenplays – for “Jailhouse Rock” and “Inherit the Wind” – he also spent a good part of the blacklist years working as a bartender and dump truck driver. Adding to this tragedy, Young’s first wife, actress Francis Sage, was also blacklisted, and unable to find work, committed suicide in 1963.
If this all sounds like ancient history, that’s exactly why Johnson and Wright wanted to make this film – to remind America that, in the words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
“We wanted to draw attention to the current political state in the U.S., and contrast and compare the witch hunt with what’s going on now,” says Wright. “It’s frightening because of the comparisons. The hateful environment of today in politics. Fear-mongering, and that was what was happening during the blacklist, instilling fear that the Communists were taking over. The comparison with today is so clear.”
“The film draws correlations between the fear-mongering of the blacklist and the fear-mongering of this time – including religion, politics, sexual orientation, trying to instill fear of whole groups of people,” adds Johnson.
“The Defiant One,” which won an award at last year’s Asheville Cinema Festival, is also important, says MacRae, because young people need to know about the witch hunt era, so it will never re-occur.
“Young people are a good target for this film,” she says. “It’s a clear window into a way of life, and if we don’t pay attention, it could happen again.”
How to watch
“The Defiant One,” with a running time of 50 minutes, is available to purchase for $20 from groundswellpictures.com.