Friday, August 23, 2013

All our racial problems are in the past!

Or so it seems, if you take mainstream Hollywood's view. I thought about that while "Lee Daniels' The Butler" dominated the domestic box office this week, beating all competition.

It's a comprehensive, heartfelt, well-constructed look at America's civil rights history, set mostly in the 1960s. Meanwhile, "Fruitvale Station" played to much smaller audiences in a much more limited release. That film depicts the last day of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man fatally shot in the back by a white police officer in San Francisco five years ago. (The films have something in common: Forest Whitaker plays the title role in the big one and was a producer on the little one.)

This seems to be a pattern: We embrace movies set in the past, maybe even before most of us lived, but stories set in our own time make us uncomfortable. "The Help," "42," "Red Tails" and even "Django Unchained" get national attention; movies about the way we live today get relegated to one screen at the multiplex, if nothing more marketable can be found.

That wasn't always true. While America wrestled with racial issues in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood writers and directors based big films on that controversy. From 1958 through 1967, six such movies -- all with contemporary settings -- earned Academy Award nominations for best picture. There have been just six more racially themed nominees in the last 45 years, and only two of them ("Crash" and "District 9") are set in the era when they were made.

So what happened? Are we tired of talking about a problem that has existed for more than 300 years in this country? Do we think this issue is happily settled forever? Or do we believe the racial divide is here to stay -- and maybe can never be bridged -so there's no point in thinking about it?

I see a connection here with war movies. Hollywood busily made stories about World War II during and after that conflict, because virtually all Americans agreed Nazis were terrible and Hitler had to go. That's why "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" could still be hits 40 years after the fact. But Vietnam divided us, and recent wars have left us queasy with indecision. So we don't see many mainstream pictures about Iraq or Afghanistan, unless they have the "We killed Osama!" vibe of "Zero Dark Thirty."

Nobody but a fool or a sadist now thinks racial segregation was a great idea and Jim Crow laws were appropriate legislation. We can all cheer for Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, for African-American kids walking proudly into once-forbidden public schools, for brave students sitting-in at lunch counters in the 1960s. But that's the last time the vast majority of Americans knew what had to be done to improve race relations.

Things have gotten more confusing, even ugly, since then. So we retreat in movie theaters to times that are simpler, easier to define, more soothing to troubled psyches. That's a natural reaction. But it means a lot of things are left unsaid, at least in Hollywood. 


Trout.Dude said...

we work, go to school, and eat together, but thats about it - we are a totally segregated by choice nation

Anonymous said...

I don't know of a country on earth where people don't segregate to be among "their own".

Even in Africa, people primarily associate with members of their own "tribe".

So it's probably here to stay.

Anonymous said...

The person who released the most honest film about the Iraq war just got 35 years in prison.

Anonymous said...

I submit to you that today's societal issues in the US are based far more on class and cultural norms than on race. I do have friends and social acquaintances who are black, but they tend to be college educated, live in my neighborhood or in neighborhoods similar to mine and dress and talk as I do. I have no white friends who are high school drop outs, who live in trailor parks, who are tatted up or who butcher the king's English. So, people do tend to associate with others who share their interests, their values and their lifestyle. As far as blacks are concerned, no doubt slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc., kept many in poverty. But, there are many programs now aimed specifically toward helping them get an education sufficient to enable them to move up the economic ladder. And I, for one, am tired of constantly having the guilt trip laid on me by media outlets such as the Observer. Why in the world would a wide audience pay to see a movie that tries to make them feel guilty about the plight of many blacks today when nobody seems to have a clue as to what to do about it. Generational poverty, whether it is among whites or blacks, has much to do with decades of learned behavior.

CharlotteObserver said...

This might help:

Aubrey Moore said...

I am sure that 2:55 was giving a heartfelt reply, but I loved The Butler, and I took no guilt trip. Without knowing from where we came as seen through the eyes of those whose experiences were different from mine, how can I understand them today? On another level, it was a great story, and haven taken my 7 and 10 year old grandsons, I introduced them to Gone With The Wind a few nights later, another great story that is told from a completely different point of view. Columnist Leonard Pitts had an article this week on TRUTH and how old black grandparents were often seen bringing their grandchildren to see the movie so they would know the truth of the grandparent's world. I accept that, and while I am glad that my grandchildren have been introduced to this TRUTH, there was no personal guilt trip. I never thought of it that way.

Aubrey Moore said...

By the way, drop your defenses and enjoy the story of the life of this man. It is as much a great American story as the movie of Walt Disney will be. To not understand either story is to live in a world that you willingly do not know except as how your own mind has constructed it, a poor substitute for reality.
And, my fellow white people, get over your feelings of being manipulated. Black folks who watched "Winter's Bone" might use it to misunderstand white folks, and that would be their problem.

Anonymous said...

movies like this make me sick, why do blacks always have to be reminded that the only time we are accepted is when we are submissive to the racist ways of white people, and if we stand up and say something about it, or treat them as they treat us, then we are accused of being racist. racism is never going away because the white people are the ones that will never let it die, they just perfected the way it's reported to make blacks seem to be racist because we hate them back. for every story a white person has about how awful a black person treated or treats them, black people have hundreds, and not from years ago but since January of this year. go ahead and deny it, if it makes you feel better about your racist ways.

Anonymous said...

The Butler is a pretty good film. I liked it but wondered, like I did when I watched Lincoln, which characters were historically accurate and which were made up for dramatic effect? It is a red flag when they say "inspired" by history.

Anonymous said...

Life is short. Accept the truth. Enjoy all people that will let you enjoy them. It's the spice of life baby!!

Reggie Mantle said...

You can't "have a conversation" about race in this country. There's no such thing as a conversation whereby one party is shouted down.

Whites don't want any part of a "national conversation about race." They know if they speak the truth they will be called a racist.

Blacks don't want to hear the truth. They only want to focus on their victimization.

Meanwhile the rest of the world has moved on.

Anonymous said...

If you think racism isn't alive in the black community, just go there. And I am not talking about the ghetto, go spend a day at Johnson C Smith, see how "welcomed" you are. I find that the black community is much more racist than the white community, it's just that nobody wants to tell that story, cause they want to tell the story of how people in power suppress people not in power. You achieve power, it isn't granted.

Aubrey Moore said...

There is one truth that shines through this thread, white people don't like you talking about their real history. A secondary truth is that the racism of their parents is alive today and changing to fit the times.

As a white person, my emphasis is on the shortcomings of that which I know, that which I have lived and lived with. Change what you can, people, yourselves. If we are successful at that, I am sure we will find that the others changed while we were not looking

Archiguy said...

One thing is certain: If you want to know who the most racist people are in this country, the last segregationists, just look at the ones who try to deflect their own prejudices onto the people who have been the historical victims. It's classic denial behavior, but it's who they are. We have a few of them visiting this comment section even now!

The fact that you'll find an almost complete Venn-diagram overlap with those who still don't believe President Obama was born in America, that he's a socialist, that's he's a racist, and the whole nauseating collection of right-wing paranoid fantasies, is just a huge coincidence. Sure.

Mark Caplan said...

Liberals are science deniers regarding human psychology, just as conservatives are science deniers regarding anthropogenic climate change. Both camps cling to magical thinking to promote their agendas.

Archiguy said...

Oh, I don't know about that Mark. Liberals, in my experience (and I've known a lot of them) have the very firmest grasp on human psychology. We know a bigoted jerk when we see him, or read his postings on an internet message board. No "magical thinking" required.

Example: the angry white men, and occasionally their angry white wives, who use every single story that appears on the Observer webpage to denounce, disparage, and demean this President, whether there's any remotely rational connection or not.

It exposes an underlying psychological pathology that seems to be at the root of the political problems facing this country today. And it's really quite easy to spot.

Anonymous said...

Last night I saw a program on James Baldwin.

In it he mentioned that the black Baptist church he attended as a child was filled with people who believed that Heaven was for the black people while Hell was for whites.

I wonder how many still share that basic belief.

Archiguy said...

Maybe it's because during the period that Baldwin was a child, many of the white people known to those churchgoers tried to make Baldwin and his people's lives a living hell, and had been doing so for the past 200 years.

While the Civil Rights Act ended segregation, it surely didn't end the racist attitudes among some white people that gave rise to it. As is clearly evident today. Just read some of these comments. BTW, I'm white, but I'm not blind.

CharlotteObserver said...

Yes, I understand the need for folks to try holding on to the past, that is why Japan still refuses to sell anything to us today.

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