A Backward Glance

Seeing Red By Julia Reichert and James Klein At the Orson Welles

WHILE FILMING UNION MAIDS, a documentary on labor struggles in the 1930s. Julia Riechert and James Klein unearthed questions about the Communist Party in America that they felt compelled to answer. Reichert and Klein began to chip away at the wall built during the McCarthy era which segregated, or some would say protected, American society from communists. They did not find what they expected--malicious communist spies in long trench coats, or "Rats," as they were described by Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. But they did find Americans they could emulate. With archival films and the clippings of more than 400 interviews, Riechert and Klein creatively reconstructed their discoveries in the Academy-Award nominated documentary Seeing Red, an intellectually stimulating and compassionate portrayal of American communists.

Seeing Red reveals a history of the Communist party in America long obscured by the Red Scare. In the 1930s Communists stood at the front of the picket lines for unions, unemployment insurance, Social Security and civil rights. Although responsible for much social and political change, communists never revealed their alliance to the Party. They could lose their jobs and all of their gains as organizers and union leaders if people knew their politics. Nevertheless, they worked on, steadily recruiting and organizing strikes. They believed in a methodology that would make the American Dream a reality.

The Communists of the 1930s as portrayed in Seeing Red were not spies. In their youth they became overwhelmed by discrimination and the disgraceful living and working conditions in the fields and slums all over the country; the disparity between the rich and the poor moved these Americans to action. Told that in Russia there was no discrimination, no poverty, and total equality, they adopted the communist country as their living model, accepting it book, line and sinker.

"They had a blind spot," says Reichert. "Unfortunately they bought into a model without questioning it. It became their first principle to defend that country." So much so that they didn't believe reports of the Stalin purges. When the Stalin revelations became news in 1956 many of the communists became so disillusioned that they dropped out of the party. They grew more concerned with democracy. It was an ideal that many would have never dreamed of giving up.

The communists who appear in Seeing Red present a message to Americans that they never explicitly recognized or addressed. According to Riechert, "They were fighting for an American democracy. They were very democratic and militant. They can be seen as models for members of a type of active democracy that we need today. We've learned from them the need to keep a questioning mind, not an uncommitted mind."


SEEING RED makes it obvious that its main characters could be our neighbors or even our relatives. But in removing the stereotypical connotations of the word "communist," the movie refrains from exposing many flaws of the communist movement. Klein explains, "We felt it was more important to convey to the audience on a broad, conceptual level, what we felt were the most basic flaws of the communist movement, rather than each and every specific historic moment when it may have gone wrong."

Pete Seeger, one of the most memorable people in the documentary, reflects on his experience as a communist with this remark: "If you're going to mourn don't mourn for a fighter who made a mistake and lost." Seeing Red all but praises. Like The Good Fight, which tells the story of the Lincoln Brigade, it presents a history of America on film unavailable in any other medium. Seeing Red is a comprehensive study of American Communists that allows one to meet the ideology of communism through the once youthful eyes of those who saw an America below their standards and strove to do something about it.