by Richard Nilsen
The Arizona Republic
The civil-rights movement is one of the central features of American
history, but good movies about it are rare: Either they become pious,
feel-good pageants about movement heroes and heroines or the movement
is subsumed into a crime thriller, with innocent victims on one side
and vicious bigots on the other, and White cops or lawyers making
things right. But there are other films to look at, too. Hollywood
may ignore the movement, but it frequently looks at the issue of
race. (All these films are available on DVD.)
Civil rights in film
"King" (1978): For a good film about the life of Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr., you can't beat the miniseries "King," with its rounded
portrait of the civil-rights leader and martyr. Paul Winfield really
captures both the moral strength and the personal insecurities of the
man. With Cicely Tyson and Ossie Davis.
Three by Spike Lee
"Malcolm X" (1992): Race is always at the heart of the films of Spike
Lee, and never more so than in his epic biography of the Black Muslim
firebrand Malcolm X. Sometimes the film bogs down in its own
ponderous sweep, but no film better captures the feel of the era.
"Get on the Bus" (1996): Lee may be an angry young man, but he is
never simple-minded. In this film about a bus ride to the Million Man
March in Washington, D.C., in 1995, the riders discuss their own
diverse racial attitudes as they head to the event. A low-budget gem
with a great cast of character actors.
"Do the Right Thing" (1989): The director's masterpiece dissects the
intricate web of attitudes, hatreds, frustrations and
misunderstandings that go into our national experience of race. It is
probably the greatest film ever on the subject, and never panders or
From the White point of view
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967): When Hollywood approaches the
subject, it almost always does so from the White point of view, as in
Stanley Kramer's famous piece of kitsch promoting racial tolerance.
Could Sidney Poitier be more squeaky clean and perfect? Could the
attitudes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy be more stereotyped?
Still, it was a milestone at the time.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): A great performance by Gregory Peck
as the ultimate American stand-up guy cannot hide the fact that a
movie about race has to have a White hero. A movie about the Negro
experience with hardly any Black actors of any consequence in it.
Nevertheless, it did much to change attitudes in Kennedy's America
with its insistence on simple fairness.
"Hairspray" (1988): John Waters is best known as the king of trash,
for his transgressive films, such as Pink Flamingos. But at the root,
every Waters movie is about tolerance, and that is just as true of
his film about the integration of the music scene in Baltimore in the
1960s. The original film is much better than the banal 2007 musical
Blame it on Mississippi
"Mississippi Burning: (1988): Mississippi frequently gets to be the
whipping boy for all the evils of segregation, bigotry and Jim Crow.
But, typical of Hollywood's take on the subject, the first seven
actors listed in the cast are White. Two White FBI agents track down
the killers of three civil-rights workers - two of whom are White.
"Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996): Rob Reiner made this film about the
1963 murder of civil-rights leader Medger Evers in Mississippi, with
Alec Baldwin as the hero lawyer who brings the culprit to justice 30
years later. More White heroes defining justice for Black victims.
"Murder in Mississippi" (1990): Mississippi is still the fall guy,
but this TV movie puts viewers in the center of the action as three
civil-rights workers are murdered for their convictions, rather than
retrospectively as police or lawyers try to rectify evils. With Tom
Hulce, Blair Underwood and Josh Charles as the martyrs.
Three from pop culture
"Shaft" (1971): Groundbreaking film about "super cop" Richard
Roundtree, with a cast almost exclusively Black, that addresses many
of the stereotyping issues in film, while creating some new ones of its own.
"White Dog" (1982): Sam Fuller was a great director of B films, and
his movies always make a case against prejudice, which makes it
ironic that his final film, about racism, was shelved in the U.S. for
being "racist." About a dog trained to attack only Black men, it
stars Paul Winfield as a trainer attempting to rehabilitate the animal.
"Blazing Saddles" (1974): "Blazing Saddles"? About civil rights?
Sheriff Cleavon Little in Ku Klux Klan robes skewers not only racism,
but the stereotypes that populate Hollywood movies. The film is
primarily meant for laughs, but underneath is one of the most
comprehensive takes on the stupidity of racism.