A Short Course:
Since our current President seems to enjoy declaring various “weeks” (like “Made in America” Week, “Infrastructure” Week, etc.) The Blast is announcing “Race Relations” Week. Blast #269 concerned itself with white resentment, white rage, and the intriguing notion that white people in America have somehow transformed into a “minority.” Earlier Blast’s have examined the concept of White Privilege, questioned the practices of law enforcement toward people of color, analyzed affirmative action programs as well as the criminal justice system. The “bias” behind all this, of course, is a strongly held belief that the United States, for all its “greatness,” has a deeply disturbing history regarding race. Instituted by the British, the brutal slave system that built colonial America --- as well as the labor of people of color that continued to be essential in the growth of the “New Colossus” through the late 19th and entire 20th century, has largely been ignored in narratives about the “American Dream” --- and certainly absent from American Cinema until the emergence of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
That said, since we are now a screen-oriented society (led by the short bus Consumer-in-Chief), it might be useful for readers to consider a “crash course” in African-American History based in watching movies! In the last five years there has been a plethora of excellent movies (for message/meaning, if not style or cinematic perfection) that might allow white audiences to gain insight and feel empathy (beyond sympathy!) for the reality of “the other” in our society. Having gone to see Katherine Bigelow’s Detroit earlier this week, the disturbing power of that film led me to compile a list of movies that, since 2012, have presented audiences with glimpses of the historic and current struggles that people of color --- and Black people in particular --- have had to endure, and continue to endure, in our society.
There are four categories of movies presented here and, if you belong to any streaming service (like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, etc.) or premium cable station (HBO, ShowTime, CineMax), you should be able to access most, if not all, of the films. The categories are “Sports,” “Historic,” “Post-WWII/Civil Rights Era” and “Contemporary.” What is recommended, if you should watch any or all of these, is attempting to immerse yourself in the characters who are not the white people (in some cases, of course, you would never want to be the whites depicted in these films!) and empathize with those "other" characters in their humanity --- their strengths, their weaknesses, their flaws, their struggle.
The two “Sports” films are classic stories most of us are familiar with on some level: “42” and “Race.” “42, “ of course is about Jackie Robinson breaking the “color barrier” in professional baseball and “Race” is about Jesse Owens and his triumph at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That movies can provide “back-story” (sometimes romanticized) is where the value in these two resides --- a view of the personal strength and struggle required by pioneering Black athletes. The “Historic” movies illustrate just how inhumane and brutal the slave system was --- and how its legacy of racism still haunts our current world. From the extremes of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” to the tragic “12 Years a Slave,” from the “white hero” “Free State of Jones” to the melodramatic “The Birth of a Nation,” each film provides viewers with graphic and brutal representations of the slave system that the “mini-series” “Roots” only suggested back in the late 1970’s. Nate Parker’s “Birth,” of course, intentionally takes its title to reverse the 1915 D.W. Griffith’s racist film (of the same name) which portrayed the KKK as “saviors” of the South and the American way of life (President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian, loved the film, saying "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.").
The “Post-WWII/Civil Rights” era movies which provide elucidation to the persistent racism and white supremacist bent in our society (and “42” could be included here, too) would be “Fences,” Hidden Figures,” “Selma,” and “Loving.” Given that all these films are set within my own lifetime, they are all the more powerful (for me) to watch. Denzel Washington’s performance in “Fences” (reviewed in an earlier Blast) is all the more impactful because Troy Maxson is not a sympathetic character at all, but clearly reflects the toll grinding racism can extract on a man. The nobility of the characters in the other three films is sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, but always stirring --- and, if you have your “empathy” glasses on, educational. “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” and “Dear White People” each make unique and powerful statements about our current dilemma with race. In comic (“Dear”), horror (“Get”) and dramatic (“Moonlight”) styles, the underlying message is similar and powerful --- and a testimony to the filmmakers and their ability to tell an engrossing or comic or frightening story with a deeper message.
“Fruitvale Station” and “Detroit,” of course, confront us with the ongoing crisis of police brutality and the killing of innocent (young) black men. If you watch all these movies and keep chronology in mind, you can see how the seeds sown in the colonial period, when Blacks were kidnapped and enslaved and criminalized in every way, have grown into a system of institutionalized racism that none of us is immune to. If you want to add a few powerful (and reinforcing) documentaries to this list, watch Anna DuVernay’s 13th which clearly depicts how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution has been used to create the prison-industrial complex, starting with Reconstruction (1865-1876), Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Raoul Peck's I am not Your Negro (James Baldwin).
So, that’s the viewing list you might consider if you want to do a little self-education on Black History in America (you could add the HBO series The Wire, Treme, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, too, if you have the time). It is not necessarily pleasant --- and not all the movies are great works of cinematic art --- but each provides insight to the empathetic white viewer in particular. This may be a “preaching to the choir” Blast but it felt like one that needed to be written.
See you at the movies!