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.