Saturday, March 19, 2011

Movies about civil rights

Encouraged to think critically about media, I want to talk about some of the similarities between three films we watched in the past day on the bus: Remember the Titans, The Blind Side and Ghosts of Mississippi. One thing that was striking to me about all three of them is the way their stories are centered around white people. This is less so in the case of Titans where Denzel Washington’s character is the lead, but the story was still framed by a white voice (the defensive coach’s daughter) often followed his story. The conclusion of the story – the moral – comes from a white perspective. Similarly, the way Ghosts centered the story around Alec Baldwin’s character really stood out to me – when it seems that Myrlie Evers is really the person at the center of the story. All three films are made by white directors. I think this raises some important questions. Who has the power to tell stories about civil rights? To whom are these stories told?

I think it’s important to consider what a movie teaches us, and how it entertains us. Certainly, all three movies give a historical perspective on events – Ghosts tells the most important story, historically, although the other stories are worthwhile too. But there’s more to these movies than just the story of the protagonists. They each contain a message about the nature of racism in America, and how it can be overcome. In all three cases, racism is manifested as negative thoughts and feelings by white people which can be overcome by those white people changing their mind. The character arcs at the center of all these movies are about essentially well meaning white people (the coach, the lawyer and the socialite) with some racist ideas who, through exposure to noble and essentially flawless black characters (the coach, the widow and the football player), learn how not to be racist. Because the white characters learn this lesson, and stand up for the main black character, racism is overcome and the good guys triumph against the evil white people who held onto their racism. The effect is cathartic, as the audience we share in their triumph and take the side of the good white people, hoping that we would do the same thing.

I don’t think catharsis is essentially a bad thing, but I do think it’s important that it doesn’t replace personal responsibility and action – something I think we should all keep in mind as we look back at history through this trip. I also think we need to ask what story isn’t being told. In the case of the Blind Side, to pick an easy example, the film never asks if the way that Sandra Bullock’s husband makes his money might be exploiting the African-American community and keeping them in poverty. Or if the all-white Christian private school is responsible for diverting resources away from the mostly-black public schools.

As I write this, I am thinking of Malcom X, the movie by black director Spike Lee about (also starring Denzel Washington). Notably, the story of Malcom X is never told from the point of view of a white person, most of the characters and all of the major characters are black. In addition, it presents a far more systematic picture of the nature of racism in America. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t end by tying up the story with all the problems of racism, as they impacted the main characters, conveniently fixed.


  1. I hope you shared your thoughts with others. You are right I think. We are so used to having movies "work out right" that I think it carries over into our expectations about real life. Then we forget to look "beyond the script" at root causes, "behind the camera" at point of view, and we fail to think about who benefits from the status quo.

  2. Isn't it Foucault who talks about the language of culture and cultural identity? I believe his point was than only those within the culture can talk about the culture, i.e. a White person cannot hope to understand the cultural language of a Black person, and therefore cannot talk accurately and with agency about racism from a Black standpoint. This is an ongoing issue with a vast amount of films that claim to deal with discourses, be they racial, gender, cultural etc.
    There's also the idea of 'Overt' and 'Covert racism' which is particularly interesting when discussing these films.

  3. You're so cool.

    "The Magical Black Person" who helps the white person triumph over their own racism is a common trope, and I agree that it leads to a kind of naive "problem solved" attitude toward racism.

    But one thing that's striking to me is that in the battle for women's rights, we have not even come so far as to develop a "Magical Female" trope.

  4. Thanks for the comments, I wish I knew who you were :)

    Interesting point about being inside the culture. I do think it is possible for a white person to make insightful art about racism in America, but I think it would involve a painful personal journey. One movie I feel does this successfully is Edmond by David Mamet, but that doesn't attempt to tell a story about racism as it harms black people but as it warps white people.

    Also, fabulous anonymous secret admirer, I think the manic pixie dream girl (e.g. Natalie Portman in Garden State) is somewhat similar although more narrowly defined, her whole purpose in being is to show the glum guy how to find joy again. Of course, all she can fix is his love-life, because that's what girls are good for. And the tool she uses to do it is her sexuality because...