Most of my knowledge on the Elia Kazan controversy comes from Brad Damien's "Inside Oscar 2 1996-2000" (Which covers the controversial 1998 Oscar ceremony where Kazan was presented with an honorary Oscar and many in the audience including Ed Harris, Nick Nolte, and Barbara Streissand refused to stand up) and Nick Clooney's "The Movies that Changed Us."
The background is that in the 1950's the most popular and successful director was Elia Kazan. His greatest works were literary adaptations like Streetcar Named Desire, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He also made socially conscious pictures which I personally think went a long way toward exposing issues on anti-semitism and racism such as Pinky and Gentleman's Agreement.
A terrible chapter of our nation's history that I hope people don't take lightly in which Jews, foreigners, radicals and anyone who wasn't in the WASP establishment was persecuted on the grounds of being Communist was the McCarthy witch hunt hearings. If anyone's ever read the Crucible about the Salem Witch trials, they were inspired by the McCarthy hearings. The McCarthy hearings targeted Hollywood and made them testify before the House Unamerican Committee, and many lost their jobs as a result.
A lot of people felt that in the wake of this, Kazan betrayed a lot of colleagues by going to the committee and naming names. To the day of his death, Kazan defended his actions saying that he felt that the communists were a danger to the country. It is widely believed that Kazan had enough grounds to break the blacklist.
A lot of the condemnation was that he did something wrong, and the debate is over whether he was wrong or right. I think the debate should be whether he did what he thought was right vs. whether he didn't care about wrong or right but just sold out to commercial interests. It's well-known that Kazan was the hottest filmmaker at the time of the hearings and that only he could have broken the blacklist and still retained a career because he had that much clout. So I ask if he still would have retained a career, weren't his motives not financial?
Also, does it factor into your judgement of Kazan that even if he did that one rotten thing, he still contributed to society by making message pictures like Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky? From what I know, I have to think that even if he did something dumb, he did what he thought was the right thing (which he vehemently defended against his death and went to the trouble of making a whole movie about it) on the basis of the fact that making GA and Pinky demonstrates that he was a guy with a social conscious.
I asked this on a message board and it got a lot of interesting responses. Many people defended him pointing out that Ronald Reagan named names as well, and he got to be president. Someone said and I agree, that we should point more fingers to the institutions, the Catholic Church, Congress, the movie studios, the press (who waited too long) that was complicit in this dark chapter on the nation's history.
There was also an opinion that the Oscar was unnecessary since Kazan had been awarded enough Oscars during his lifetime while people he ratted out like Dalton Trumbo got none until after his death. I pointed out in response to that, that Trumbo died in the late 1960's, 30 years before Kazan, so it's hard to say if they wouldn't have come to their senses eventually and given it to him while he was alive, and an Oscar posthumously is better than none at all.
I think the important thing is that we all remember what happened and don't forget that dark chapter in our nation's history.