Exactly 50 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood with Abraham Lincoln behind him and told a crowd of 250,000 about a dream. Later the same day, a group of movie stars sat with journalist David Schoenbrun to explore a silver-lined dark chamber of the human heart.
Complicated despite its progressively stacked panel, the group interview with novelist James Baldwin, singer Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, director Joseph Mankiewicz and Sidney Poitier is robust in its inspiration — made more lucent by the evolution that followed it.
This is a powerful half hour (which you can see below) that stands at a fascinating crossroads between groundshattering history, celebrity power and race relations in America.
Unpacking all of this would take a few hundred pages with small font, but a few things jump out as curiosities. The most obvious is that 8 months after this discussion, Poitier would become the first black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor — perhaps giving a breathing form to what Mankiewicz describes in the discussion as “waking up to [the dream]”. That he won for a movie like Lilies of the Field, which is laden with themes of laboring for the good of your fellow man (or nun) and the difficulty of finding a job, makes it even more poignant. The movie had already debuted at the Berlin Film Festival and was playing Europe in preparation for a US release about a month after this talk, so it’s easy to assume it might have been on Poitier’s mind at the time.
Interestingly, it was Mankiewicz who directed Poitier in his 1950 feature debut No Way Out — a film noir dealing with, what else, racism.
Through a modern lens, the most bizarre curiosity of the talk is the completely altered myth of Charlton Heston, a man who has become pigeon-holed by his Cold Dead Hands persona but who delivers a striking support of color-blind freedom and liberalism here. In the years following, his personal view would shift to neoconservatism, so it’s sadly too easy to think of him only as the laser focused defender of the NRA when his public life was far more vibrant, and included campaigning for John F. Kennedy and (of course) participating in the Civil Rights March on Washington. Hopefully this rounds out our view of this outspoken man a bit more.
This video should be required viewing for everyone, but the most depressing element is that it’s supremely difficult to imagine this kind of roiling yet polite discussion happening in today’s partisan infotainment environment. More than hollow pining for “simpler times,” watching this roundtable offers a concrete example of something sophisticated and poetic that appears miles away from where media is at currently.
Which is a shame because, for better and for worse, we’re still having the same conversation.