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This place matters

Monday, January 19, 2015

Are we still dreaming?

There was some hubub last week when the Academy Award nominees were announced, with many folks pointing out that none of the nominees would exactly stand out at a Klan convention, and that although Selma was nominated for Best Picture, the directors and stars of that film were overlooked.
Now, I haven't seen Selma or any of the other movies nominated. Like none. Movies have become like a really expensive mandatory nap lately, and I can nap in my house for free and I don't wake up with Twizzlers in my hair. Usually.
What I'm saying is that Selma might be utter crap and the fact that the slate of nominees looks like the cast of Friends (maybe one of the nominees will make like Ross and bring a vaguely ethnic date?) might be coincidence. So I'm not gonna talk about Selma. But I am going to talk about something weird in movies about stuff like Civil Rights.
If Hollywood movies, especially the highly acclaimed ones, are to be believed, the Civil Rights movement starred a surprisingly white cast. 
Like The Help. Not that I don't love Emma Stone (and wish science would find a way to let me have little ginger babies with her), but isn't it a little weird that a movie called The Help would center around her character? I wonder if she was friends with all the brave, brave white ladies behind the Montgomery bus boycott in The Long Walk Home. It's not that it's not great to have movies about black people and white people working together for equality, but isn't it weird how Hairspray is supposed to be about integration, but 80% of the folks on the DVD cover for the 2007 remake are white? That's a little bit more "integrated" than the 1988 cover, which is 100% white, but still... District 9 managed to paint a powerful allegory for apartheid with an all-white cast. Glory, the story of the Civil War's first all-black company centers around Matthew Broderick's character, while Denzel Washington only ranks a supporting role.
Mississippi Burning was a great example of this phenomenon. There were so many black heroes fighting for equality and voting rights in Mississippi in 1964. But Burning highlights the heroism of the two white FBI agents who solved the murder of three civil rights workers, while the black characters cower and whimper, refusing to offer any help. In what author James E White calls "a cinematic lynching of the truth," the credits list James Chaney, black leader of the group of civil rights workers killed, as "Black Passenger." To be fair, none of the victims were named in the film, though they did have "Black Passenger" trembling in the back seat of a car next to "Passenger" (Andrew Goodman), while "Goatee" (Michael Shwermer) leads the group and reassures his cowering black associate, when it was almost certainly Chaney doing the driving and the leading. 
It's so strange... the people who make and watch these movies obviously believe racism is bad. I seriously doubt that acclaimed director Alan Parker was twirling his mustache when he rewrote history with Mississippi Burning. And I doubt the mostly white Academy were doing so when hey snubbed Selma in most categories. But it's so weird how they, and we, seem to need white heroes to make us care about black people. And I wonder, if we can't relate to the struggle for fundamental rights until it affects people who look like us, how far have we really come? 
I mean, I get it, but maybe if we could get Tom Hanks to say it...

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