Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Racism Hollywood-Style

By Chris Herrington

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  While Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is only the latest in a recent spate of black-oriented historical films, it’s received more pre-release hype (including the cover of Newsweek) than any of the black-produced historical films of recent years. With that press has come the question of whether a white guy can make a legitimate film about black experience. But, if other recent attempts are any indication, then Spielberg has a lot to prove.

Rob Reiner’s well-intentioned Ghosts of Mississippi and Joel Schumacher’s manipulative A Time to Kill both purport to be about race-based oppression in the South, but these films are really about white guilt and redemption. They tell their stories through the eyes of white lawyers who act as stand-ins for a white audience that is assumed to be uninterested in elements of black experience that don’t derive their meaning from their relationship to white society.

The only significant black figure in Ghosts of Mississippi – which tells the story of prosecuter Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), who, 26 years after the fact, tried and convicted admitted racist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers – is Evers’ widow, Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), who mostly exists off-screen, occasionally appearing to issue stiff, noble declarations (its hard to decide what’s worse, the underwritten role or Goldberg’s performance), while DeLaughter’s one-man struggle for justice becomes a parallel for Reiner’s act of filmmaking. “We have to make the past start living again,” says DeLaughter at one point, speaking for his mission of reopening the case as well as Reiner’s of retelling the story. These two levels of white redemption come together at the end in a remarkable bit of narcissism when Myrlie Evers shows up to offer DeLaughter, and, by extension, Reiner, the ultimate validation. “Everyone thought he was crazy,” says Myrlie, speaking of her martyred husband, “but he just wanted to do a good job.” After DeLaughter looks up in recognition, she continues, “You,” she says to DeLaughter, to Reiner, to the white audience, “remind me of Medgar.”

A Time to Kill, based on the John Grisham novel, is even more crass. The film opens with the ominous roar of a pickup truck, filmed from an extreme low-angle as if it’s escaped from the depths of Hell. When the truck’s inhabitants, the two most stereotypically vile and slovenly rednecks you will ever see, kidnap and rape a 9-year-old black girl, her father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) murders them before they can stand trial. Soon a white lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) arrives to defend him and to prove that a black man who kills two white men can receive a fair trial in the New South, and Hailey, along with the rest of the town’s black citizens, fades into the background.

Though A Time to Kill is set in the present day – with its unbridled redneck violence, rampant Klan terrorism (all aimed against whites, when’s the last time that happened?), military security, mass demonstrations, Northern liberal saviors and good, faceless gospel-singing black folk – it basically recreates the civil-rights-era South of a dozen other films. When it comes to race relations in the small-town South, that’s all most Hollywood filmmakers know.

There’s something insidious about the racial dynamic these films set up. Not to downplay the tragedy of slavery, but, in an abstract sense, these films set up a similar dynamic, merely replacing the paternalistic role of the wealthy white slave-holding class with a new breed of upper-class whites – good liberals whose roles are to “protect” the black population from poor white trash, who are the scapegoats for a racist system. These films have no interest in exploring how power and racism function together, and who really benefits from such an exchange.

Tim Reid’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored: syrupy, but uncommonly generous and respectful.

Fortunately, more and more black filmmakers are gaining control of the filmmaking apparatus, and are using their power to write their own (film) history. If you want an illuminating home-video experience, try combining a viewing of A Time to Kill with Tim Reid’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, which follows the lives of the black community in Glen Allen, Mississippi, from 1946 to 1962. Unlike Time and Ghosts, which view history through the actions of (white) individuals, Once Upon a Time, which contains 83 speaking parts and comes off like a straight version of a Robert Altman epic, is about the dynamics of a community. And, though racism is very much an issue in the film, it’s not its sole reason for existing. Despite the unbearably syrupy voice-over narration, Once Upon a Time is a film of uncommon generosity, and respects the entire range of its characters lived experience.

While Amistad has been getting attention for exploring a chapter of America’s twisted racial history often left out of official accounts, black directors in recent years have been doing the same. A similar film, at least in theory, is John Singleton’s Rosewood, about a race riot in 1923 by whites against blacks that led to the destruction of an all-black Florida community. If the artistry of Rosewood can’t match the provocative nature of the material, blame it on Singleton, a conventional, overrated filmmaker who, while privileging the black citizens of Rosewood in screen time and moral force, doesn’t make them any more human than Myrlie Evers was in Ghosts of Mississippi.

Another uneven account is Mario Van Peebles’ Panther, about Oakland’s Black Panther party in the ’60s. Though the Black Panthers are undoubtedly better remembered than either the Rosewood or Amistad incidents were, the party has still been given the shaft by most official histories. In Eric Foner and John A. Garraty’s 1,226-page The Reader’s Companion to American History, for example, Mario Cuomo is granted seven paragraphs, while the Panthers get but a single sentence. Van Peebles’ attempt to rectify these types of exclusions is commendable, and his film is even-handed and engaging, especially in the early scenes that detail the Panthers’ formulation and the community from which it sprang, but Van Peebles doesn’t possess his father Melvin’s (director/star of the ’70s avant-garde classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) polemical powers, and Panther dissolves into a morass of over-played conspiracy theories and played-out action sequences.

Mario Van Peebles’ Panther: even-handed and engaging, but lacking polemical power.

Like Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, and, perhaps, even the tellingly titled Muhammad Ali documentary When WE Were Kings (emphasis mine), Panther betrays a sense of nostalgia for the struggles of the civil-rights era, a longing for the sense of positive social action and progress the movement fostered and that has been lost in this post-civil-rights era of increasing economic stratification along racial lines, social breakdown, and racial scapegoating – a time when the promises of the civil-rights years seem to have been abandoned.

Get On the Bus, Spike Lee’s magnificent meditation on the current philosophical state of black America, meets these concerns head-on. Its ostensible subject is 1995’s Million Man March, a recent attempt to revive the positive energy of the civil-rights era, but the march, both in the film, and, Lee implies, in real life, is merely a vehicle for discussion. Offering a bus full of black men on a cross-country trip to the march, the film, written not by Lee but by young screenwriter Reggie Rock Blythewood, allows plenty of time for talk. This is one of the most conversation-intensive films in recent memory, and it is captivating. Lee’s film is more inclusive than the march itself, featuring a multiplicity of viewpoints (without privileging any of them) that acknowledge the diversity of experience and opinion in black America in ways that no white-produced film ever has. Get on the Bus even offers a feminist critique of the march, confronts homophobia and racism in the black community, and allows some serious criticism of Farrakhan himself. That half the men don’t make it to the march, which, in itself, takes up very little screen time, seems to be Lee’s way of saying that this history is still being written.

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