Language, even more so than images, are what draw me to movies. And yet when I first saw THE MOLLY MAGUIRES in 1970 I never took the time to find out who wrote it. I wish I had. Writer Walter Bernstein called himself "a secular, self-loving Jew of the leftist persuasion," and his politics influenced both his life and his art. *THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, a story about union-busting in the coal mines of Pennsylvania in the 19-century, mirrored the social upheavals of the late 1960s and '70s. FAIL SAFE(1964) starring Henry Fonda is the story of an accidental nuclear crisis. PARIS BLUES (1961) starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, delivered pointed commentary on racial intolerance.
After WWII Mr. Bernstein - along with other writers, producers and directors - was black-listed for his politics. He had written for the leftist New Masses, been a member of the Communist Party, supported Soviet relief, the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and civil rights. He was forced to work under assumed names for sympathetic filmmakers like Sidney Lumet. He and his colleagues began the ruse of protecting their anonymity by sending stand-ins to represent them at meetings with producers, a ploy later dramatized in his best-known film THE FRONT (1976).
Six decades after the fact, Mr. Bernstein reflected on the Red Scare period. "I don't know if it's true of other people getting older, but I look back on that period with some fondness in a way, in terms of the relationships and support and friendships. We helped each other during that period." Walter Bernstein died this past Saturday in Manhattan. He was 101. I wish I had met him. (*The Rose isn't currently streaming THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, but I hope to in the near future.)
SOFTIE, streaming Friday, feels like a perfect coda to Mr. Bernstein's life and art. It is a portrait of a committed activist, but it's also about politics, family and what it means to be Kenyan. "A compelling act of defiance; powerful and personal. As intimate as it is brave." -The Film Stage. "A marvel of narrative storytelling." -Filmmaker Magazine. "If you believe in governments for the people, by the people and for the people, this film is for you." -Lupita Nyong'o