Civil Rights in Film

Not simply sniffles but outright sobbing could be heard at the screening of Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” from 2013. The tears were propelled by the power of the storytelling, and of the performances, but the film gathered greater heft through the reality it unfortunately depicted. The film chronicles the last hours of 22-year-old Oscar Grant before his death at the hands of police on an Oakland transit station.

In a discomforting, yet potently fitting coincidence, the film’s theatrical run coincided with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Racial tensions, the kind that are as American as apple pie, seeped into the media and into the social psyche, and names like Renisha Mcbride in Detroit, Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina, and Jordan Davis in Florida have given those tensions little reason to abate. How funny that, a little over a year later, that small, scrappy drama from a first time director seems that much more important, and a coincidence turns into something timeless.

Today, as it has been for so long, being black can still equal a death sentence in America, and here is a film that chooses to tackle that notion right as the news headlines are being made, and for America’s movie industry, that is a rare thing. To a major studio, a film dealing in the controversial here and now is a scary thought.

To be sure, it wasn’t only the Civil Rights Movement that tripped up Hollywood. In the past, many major events have made America shift uncomfortably in its seat, and you’ll notice a Hollywood that was similarly timid about projecting that discomfort on screen. The mid ‘60s saw the most intense opposition to the Vietnam War, but it would only be towards the end of the ‘70s that we would get “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now,” for many critics the defining films on the conflict.

The classic, 1962 conspiracy thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” was withdrawn from theaters in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and was not re-released until the late ‘80s. And many studios (and moviegoers) felt five years was still too soon when, in 2006, British filmmaker Paul Greengrass released “United 93,” about the doomed United Airlines flight on September 11. But this reluctance to deal with the most tumultuous of events reached a sort of apex with the explosion of the Civil Rights era.

Where once Hollywood could engage in the times with glossy patriotism or light-footed escapism, the kind best exemplified during World War II, the social upheaval and rage of the Civil Rights era rendered Hollywood rather feeble and impotent. The bombing of freedom rider buses, beatings and jailing of protestors, and the overall boot of brutality that sought to lie on the neck of an entire race was not the stuff fit for Hollywood gloss.  Worse still, Hollywood studios largely sought to sidestep subjects or scenes that would incense moviegoers in the South, where hostility towards African-Americans was highest. Their rationale was that exhibitors would pull the movies out of theaters outright. At best, studios could afford only a few baby steps towards directly engaging the times.

Those baby steps came in many forms. One not so subtle evocation of social change at the time was Sidney Lumet’s simmering, 1957 debut “12 Angry Men.”  The film presents a jury that must pass judgment on a minority teenager charged with murdering his father. The film is an engaging look at the justice system, and a call for justice and understanding Further, it put a human face on the prejudices and biases that defined many Americans. Its jury room location pointed to the real life battles that would be fought for the rights of African-Americans, like the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas case three years earlier or the Cooper v. Aaron decision of 1958.  As hundreds of protesting black citizens marched in the streets to their jobs during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, actors like Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belefonte, and Sidney Poitier marched across the movie screens of our nation, challenging stereotypes and that have defined their race for a century.

Throughout the ‘50s, attempts were made to portray more human, dignified portraits of African-Americans, often in racially themed dramas meant to uplift the spirit and warm the heart. Films like “Edge of the City (1957)” and “The Defiant Ones (1958)” showed whites teaming up with noble, heroic black characters. 1951’s “Cry, The Beloved Country” and 1955’s “The Emperor Jones” sought to counter past images of black savages in film.

1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” based on the popular novel by Harper Lee, was critically acclaimed for the strong performance by Gregory Peck and applauded for its indictment of bigotry; yet its noble intentions– to show humanity in a South that, in reality, seemed empty of it– are more gag inducing than righteous. Peck’s Atticus Finch plays nothing more than the great white savior who must defend and uphold the humanity of the black suspect, and by proxy, the black race, a device that points the way to films like “Mississippi Burning” “Amistad,” and “The Help.”

The arrival of actor Sidney Poitier made as large a cultural crater as “Mockingbird,” even if the results were only slightly less mawkish.  Here was a performer who commanded the screen by standing there, and whose every gesture complemented the rhythm of a scene. Poitier embodied an almost spotless idea of moral decency and upright, manly conviction.

This is of course apparent in the aforementioned “The Defiant Ones,” in which he plays an escaped black convict who sacrifices his freedom and his safety to help his white ally (played by Tony Curtis). It can also be seen in his Oscar winning role in “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, and most particularly in the one-two punch of “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1967, released just two years after the Selma to Montgomery Marches and passing of the Voting Rights Act. “In the Heat of the Night” has Poitier play a Philadelphia detective who must work with a bigoted, white detective to solve a murder.

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” he plays a successful doctor engaged to a white woman who must contend with the prejudices of her parents and the fear of his. Both films deal in racial reconciliation as brought on by the moral superiority of a black man, superiority too much for the hostile white characters to handle. It is telling that, in both films, he wears nothing but a suit and tie.

He was more idea than man in these films, although “In the Heat of the Night” and its director Norman Jewison had to be commended for instilling a sense of fury and unsentimental emotion in this Southern thriller. When Poitier’s detective Virgil Tibbs responds to the slap of a racist suspect by slapping him right back, that fed up, no nonsense retaliation spoke to a generation fighting for its humanity as well as to racial tensions that were no longer simmering, but bubbling over the surface into the streets.

That slap in the face of white oppression can be linked to the trashcan thrown through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Spike Lee’s landmark, 1989 masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It is important to make note of the kinship of these movie moments, and the 20 years that separate them. Over twenty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but the latter action is even grander, more dramatic, and, in the film, an impetus for a riot.

“Do the Right Thing” would come just a year after ‘Mississippi Burning,” which won the Best Picture Oscar. Based on the true account of the investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, the film, directed by Alan Parker, played fast and loose with history and is yet another drama guilty of putting the moral and narrative weight on the shoulders of its white characters. It put a suitably ugly face on racism, yet sidestepped much of the complexity and nuance found in Lee’s impassioned work of operatic feeling, docu-drama intensity, and social wisdom.

Lee’s achievement saw through the moralizing and made a provocative, somber case that America was no closer to solving issues of race in America than it was when Sidney threw that slap. And why wouldn’t Spike make that argument? Just four years earlier, three black men were beaten by a group of white teens in a largely Italian neighborhood in Queens, just one of several racially charged crimes that occurred in the Big Apple at the time.

Lee’s film, though immediately hailed as a vital work of art, was too much for many moviegoers, with some predicting the film’s violent climax would incite real life riots. Ultimately, the film would get the shaft at the 62 Academy Awards, not even managing a nomination for Best Picture, which would go to the spineless “Driving Miss Daisy,” a feel good, innocuous comedy that solved the race problem in America with the wry charms of Jessica Tandy and the voice of Morgan Freeman. Rather than facing Civil Rights head on, Hollywood took to the conflict like “the magic bullet” in Kennedy’s assassination: back and to the left.

In lieu of  “Miss Daisy” and all the films like it, and an African-American president forced to engage in talks about race like a circus performer riding a unicycle on a tightrope, the achievement of “Fruitvale Station,” cannot be understated, even under the shadow of stronger, similarly themed work offered by Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen the same year. “The Butler,” which depicted the Civil Rights through the eyes of its black heroes, and “12 Years a Slave,” an uncompromising look at the horrors of slavery, were long, long overdue. But “Fruitvale Station” is right on schedule.

It is a punch in the gut Hollywood should not shrink from. The moving image has power that no art form can match, and the power tapped by Ryan Coogler spoke to a vital aspect of the human condition: empathy. It is empathy that moviegoers felt in the theaters, empathy with a young man who lived, loved, laughed, and cried like any one of us, who wasn’t a label or a statistic, but flesh and blood. Sometimes films need not be perfect, or even great. In grasping something pure about the human condition, they need only show us the light. When it comes to the rights of African-Americans, Hollywood has shied away from the light, too often wandering aimlessly in a tunnel of white saviors, good intentions, and pitiful evasion. But “Fruitvale” found the light, and if the movies are to remain an integral component of the social climate, whether that also encompasses gay rights, gun laws, or war in the Middle East, then Hollywood is going to have to grow a pair already.

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