race

Do the Right Thing

“Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take. This difficult coin did not cease to spin. It had neither heads not tails: for what white people took into their hands could scarcely be called vengeance, it was something less and something more.” In his autobiographical essay on movies and American racism, “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin discusses at length the absence of black subjectivity and the prominence of white heroism in the milieu of classical Hollywood in which he came of age. At one point in the essay, Baldwin states that he has seen no black persons that he knows in the movies. He does not mean that he has never seen black faces onscreen, but rather that he has never seen a black protagonist whose experiences honestly reflect his position, neither the “debasement” of Stephin Fetchit nor Sidney Poitier’s role in The Heat of the Night, the latter of which Baldwin refers to as conveying, yet refusing to confront, “the anguish of people trapped in a legend.” That legend forbade black characters from achieving anything resembling the vengeance that white characters so regularly found on American screens. While published thirteen years before the movie’s release, Baldwin’s reflections on American cinema are essential […]

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Jesse Owens biopic

Plenty of American heroes never quite get their due, especially cinematically, but it seems as if Olympic champion and beloved national superstar Jesse Owens is about to get an embarrassment of riches when it comes to big screen portrayals. The track and field star and four-time Olympic gold medalist rose to prominence during the 1936 games — held in Berlin, Germany — when Adolf Hitler reportedly “snubbed” Owens by refusing to shake his hand alongside other (German) winners. Although the exact nature of the snub has been debated, it is clear that Hitler meant to use the Olympics to show off his Nazi Germany and prove the superiority of German athletes, which Owens’ winning streak pretty handily derailed. However, what is clear is that our own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, did snub Owens, who later commented: “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” FDR also didn’t invite him to the White House, as was commonplace at the time.  Owens, who was previously the subject of a 1984 television movie (an Emmy winner, no less), may now be the subject of no less than three brand new feature films. Although it remains to be seen if all of these projects will make it to the big screen — and it seems safe to assume that not all of them will — it’s unclear who will emerge the victor of this cinematic race to the finish, so let’s get to know each […]

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Over Under - Large

In 2011, director Tate Taylor adapted Kathryn Stockett’s novel “The Help,” a story about the relationship between the wealthy whites and the poor blacks who raised their children of 60s-era Mississippi, into a feature film. When all was said and done, Taylor’s film made nearly ten times its production budget, was nominated for a truckload of awards (including 8 NAACP Image Awards and 4 Academy Awards), and had everyone’s aunts and grandmas talking their ears off about how much they wanted to go see it. To say that it ended up being a success would be something of an understatement. The Landlord is the debut of director Hal Ashby, one of the great ’70s filmmakers who, for some reason, doesn’t get the same recognition as many of his contemporaries. It earned Lee Grant a nomination for Best Supporting Actress back in the day, but it’s a film (like most of Ashby’s work not named Harold and Maude) that’s been generally forgotten over time. This is strange, because not only is it a great film that pushes some racial hot-buttons, but it also features a couple of actors who went on to do big things in Beau Bridges and Lou Gossett Jr.

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Culture Warrior

The Help has started a conversation that’s stretched far beyond the 137-minute confines of the film itself. And in its second week in a row atop the late-summer box office, the critical conversation surrounding the film has continued amidst (and, sometimes, against) the sleeper popularity it endures in a fashion similar to the success of the book it was based on. In interest of full disclosure, I have deliberately chosen by this point not to see The Help (perhaps a combination of my reservations against it combined with its daunting running time). However, in following the many editorials published in response to the film’s release, it oddly enough feels appropriate to comment on the conversation that the film has inspired without having seen it, as it’s a conversation that is hardly limited to the film itself. The Help seems to represent a breaking point, the last piece of white liberal guilt that broke the clear-cut racial fantasies of Hollywood cinema’s back, so to speak. The film is bearing the brunt of a decades-long history of similarly minded feel-good studio fare about race relations. While The Help certainly has its full-throated detractors, one interesting component about the overall critical reaction to the film is that it is politically simplistic while also presenting good or perfectly competent filmmaking, carried by a couple of strong female performances at its center (which, when considering what’s lacking in terms of identity and representation in Hollywood, is itself no small miracle).

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Culture Warrior

Warning: this editorial contains spoilers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and, for that matter, the original Planet of the Apes). Consider yourself warned, you maniacs! The original Planet of the Apes lends itself quite readily to allegory. 1968, the year of the film’s release, was the peak of one of the most tumultuous eras in American social history. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in April of that year, and Robert F. Kennedy’s death followed a mere two months later. Student resistance and campus demonstrations grew increasingly violent in their opposition to the Vietnam War, the Chicago DNC broke into an all-out war, and racial discord mounted. Of course, none of this had happened yet when Planet of the Apes went into production, but the intersections of intent and circumstance that permit the film to be read so heavily, so variously, and so often in allegorical terms enrich the original film and its sequels with resonance that outlives whatever else may date it. Beyond entertainment value, the Planet of the Apes series has lingered in the popular imagination not because of any strong connection to a specific associative meaning, but because of the many possible allegorical readings it is capable of containing. One of several reasons that Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds where previous reincarnations of the series did not is its reclaimed capacity for allegory.

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