Guilty by Suspicion: Social Constructs, Institutions, and Censorship in a Time of Mass Paranoia


Guilty by Suspicion provides a dramatized insight into one of America’s darkest times: the era of McCarthyism.  With the approval of Congress, Senator Joe McCarthy headed the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in response to the Red Scare in the 1950s, the goal of which was to “investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the parts of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of Communist ties.”   Although its intentions were good (and even justified, given the postwar American public’s overwhelming fear of a Communist coup d’etat), things quickly spun out of control.  In order to save themselves from imprisonment, those accused had to name other Communists or sympathizers, but many of those named were neither.  Lives were ruined, friendships were lost, Constitutional rights were overlooked all in the name of democracy — and no organization was hit harder than Hollywood,


This is where Guilty by Suspicion comes in, telling the fictional but historically-inspired tragedy of Hollywood director David Merrill, his wife, and his close friends — all of whom are accused of being Communist sympathizers.  However, Guilty by Suspicion is not simply about a bunch of people in Hollywood losing their reputations; it is about institutionalized prejudices, it is about government groups abusing their power, it is about the dangers of government censoring the people it is supposed to serve.  How can concepts discussed in Media Industries help the audience see this?

An example of the propaganda against Communism that would have been mass-produced in post-WWII America for the public to consume.

An example of the propaganda against Communism that would have been mass-produced in post-WWII America for the public to consume.

The first concept that needs to be discussed to gain a better understanding of Guilty by Suspicion is the idea of a social construction of reality: the theory for explaining how cultures construct and maintain their realities using signs and symbols, and argues that people learn to behave in their social world through interaction with it (Baran 2014, p. 337).  In the film’s case, the idea of Communists, Communist sympathizers, and Communism in general is being socially constructed.  Regardless of whether or not Communists are actually “bad people,” HUAC capitalizes on the American people’s fear of the idea of Communism and does everything in their power to make them and even their sympathizers look like the worst people in the world.  In the film’s final scene (1:30:00 until the end credits) the committee presents a picture of David and his wife at a rally protesting the atomic bomb and distorts the truth, declaring that the peace rally has “only one purpose: to disrupt public opinion on the matter of the atomic bomb long enough to give the Soviet Union its chance to complete its preparation for war” (1:34:32).  HUAC was so paranoid that Reds were infiltrating American borders  that they felt the need to deem a simple peace rally — anything that went against the conservative administration — as part of the Communist agenda.  Even though they did nothing wrong, David and his wife were no longer respected members of society, they were traitorous Communist sympathizers.

Certain members of the government were so determined to eliminate Communism in America that they too often sacrificed the rights of American people. In Guilty by Suspicion, David is fired from his job as a movie maker, and is persecuted by the government. One other woman, Dorothy, has her child taken away from her for being associated with the Communist Party (33:19). She later kills herself out of grief (1:07:00). While these atrocities sound like they could have happened in a Third World country, this modern day “witch hunt” took place right here in America.  Disregarding the basic right of Americans to assemble where, when, and why they wish to assemble, government officials like Joseph McCarthy rounded up all of the Americans he could find who once had a tie to Communism. David and his wife, as well as some of his friends, did, in fact, attend Communist meetings. However, they attended these meetings at a time previous to McCarthyism, at a time when Communism was popular in Europe.  Regardless of the fact that David was no longer a Communist at the time of his mccarthypersecution, he was brought to trial as if he was (1:25:00). McCarthy and other individuals, using their power as government officials, created an environment of hysteria and fear. This movie very much reminded me of our last movie about Richard Nixon and the lies he told regarding the war in Vietnam- much like McCarthy, he controlled the press and the media like a puppet-master, forcing them to portray the political climate as something that it wasn’t.


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