DRAMA/Ed Rampell

‘Hamilton’ vs. Trump:
Free-speech duels go on from Broadway to L.A.

The opening salvo in America’s new battle over free speech was fired Nov. 18 when the cast of Hamilton: An American Musical took aim at the Donald Trump administration from the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theater, prompting outrage from the tweetstormtrooper-in-chief.

The same night, across the continent, a new play about Charlie Chaplin’s struggle against a Nazi diplomat to make his anti-Hitler satire The Great Dictator opened at Beverly Hills.

And on Nov. 20, a new biopic about actress Marsha Hunt’s persecution by the Hollywood Blacklist was screened in Los Angeles.

President-elect Trump took to Twitter to denounce the statement read by Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor portraying Vice President Aaron Burr, during the curtain call. Dixon’s statement was aimed at Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who’d been booed by Hamilton audience members as he took his seat. Dixon said: “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

Dixon’s character in Hamilton exercised what candidate Trump called a “Second Amendment solution” — shooting Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel.

Dixon’s temerity triggered Trump’s tweetstorm, exclaiming, “This should not have happened!” and demanding Hamilton’s cast “apologize.”

Trump took valuable time out from forming a new government and settling Trump University lawsuits to attack Saturday Night Live. With his Twitter tirades, Trump — who’d bullied and insulted journalists and threatened to expand libel laws — extended his assault on the First Amendment by attacking the creative community.

After a Sherman Oaks Film Festival showing of Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, the now 99-year-old actress responded to Trump’s Twitter temper tantrum: “In my personal opinion they [Hamilton’s actors] took an action to which we all have a right. But free speech goes on and I hope it does.”

As the documentary chronicles, Hunt — who appeared in 1940s movies such as Pride and Prejudice and The Human Comedy with Laurence Olivier and Mickey Rooney — flew to Washington, D.C., with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and other artists to protest 1947’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings alleging communist subversion of American movies. For participating with the Committee for the First Amendment and other activities, Hunt fell afoul of the Hollywood Blacklist, suppressing her film career during the McCarthy era.

Also attending the screening was Ed Asner, who is best known for playing Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant and was persecuted for his politics. Said Asner: “I became Screen Actors Guild president in 1981 and [got] involved in speaking out against the death squads in El Salvador and other Central American countries. I approached it from the humanist angle of providing medical aid to El Salvador, which was taken as a ... communist-sympathizing act on my part. It created a furor ... and s—- storm, which eventuated in the cancellation of the Lou Grant show.”

Ironically, Asner opposed the Central America policies of President Ronald Reagan, who, during the 1940s, had also been SAG’s president and gave “names to the FBI of people he considered to be communists,” Asner said.

Regarding the Hamilton brouhaha, Asner said Dixon’s statements “showed we’re not backing off from the stage and embarrassing [the Trump administration]. I can’t condemn it [Dixon’s remarks].” The 87-year-old actor added, “Trump deserves to be embarrassed; I don’t know about Pence.”

In John Morogiello’s play The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart, Germany’s L.A. diplomat Georg Gyssling lobbies and browbeats actress/movie mogul Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff) to stop Charlie Chaplin from making The Great Dictator. Pickford and Chaplin co-founded United Artists in 1919 and, according to historian Thomas Doherty’s 2013 book Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, Gyssling actively campaigned in the movie capital against films showing the Third Reich negatively, threatening distribution bans in Germany.

With its West Coast premiere coinciding with the Hamilton controversy, Consul is timely in its depiction of artists resisting censorship by a strongman. Thin-skinned Trump’s hissy fit is rich, coming from someone who frequently denounces “political correctness” — except, of course, for “taboo” words criticizing his sacred cows.

But the Hamilton imbroglio is the first shot fired in a war between artists and an authoritarian president who can dish it out but can’t take it. If he follows through on campaign rhetoric about registering Muslims, does Trump plot to register dissenting artists on a 21st century enemies list?

As the play about Chaplin vs. a Nazi censor and the Marsha Hunt documentary about the Hollywood Blacklist remind us, the Hamilton clash is the latest in America’s continuing fight for constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

Since Dixon’s speech implored the incoming Trump regime to “protect” the inalienable rights of “all” the people, what did founding father Hamilton himself say about this? The quote below, from Federalist No. 22, Dec. 14, 1787, is attributed to Hamilton: “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family or class of men; therefore, the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity and happiness require it.”

Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and he co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. This originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2017


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