on Hollywood's Version of History (Essay)
February 18, 2010
By Timothy B. Tyson
Historians hate Hollywood. Movie makers see history merely as the
backdrop for their tales of hard-boiled cops and boys-meet-girls.
Historians of the civil rights movement wince harder than most with
good reason. On the rare occasions when Hollywood turns to the
subject, we get the Good White Folks versus the Bad White Folks, with
black Southerners as soulful, hymn-singing props. There isn't a
movement in these "civil rights movement" movies at all. It's all
about white people.
Back when I was a penniless graduate student, a Hollywood production
company wanted to turn my dissertation into a movie. "Robert F.
Williams and the Roots of Black Power" was the story of a local NAACP
branch president in North Carolina who faced down Ku Klux Klan
terrorists with a machine gun in the late 1950s and fled to Fidel
Castro's Havana in 1961. Not only is it an important story, but
Samuel L. Jackson was born to play Robert F. Williams.
One day, the Hollywood big cheese called me again and I could hear
the question coming: "Is there some kind of, well, you know, a white
character that played a heroic role?" The producer made it crystal
clear: no "white hero," no movie. What I said cannot be printed here.
And so when screenwriter Jeb Stuart, known for penning "Die Hard" and
"The Fugitive," told me he wanted to make a movie based on my third
book, "Blood Done Sign My Name," I was wary. I knew he could do
explosions and chase scenes. But the prospect of Hollywood history haunted me.
"Blood" combines first-person narrative and two decades of historical
research to show how a divided African American community in Oxford,
North Carolina pulled together in 1970 after the public killing of
Henry Marrow, a young black veteran, and changed their own history
forever. Some organized boycotts, others threw firebombs. One local
high school teacher, Ben Chavis, became one of the leading African
American activists of his generation. These pages prove Eudora Welty
was right that "people are mostly layers of violence and tenderness
wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions
I figured that Stuart aimed to turn my book into "To Kill a
Mockingbird," the classic white hero film, or even "Mississippi
Burning," the worst of the genre. Sure, I love Harper Lee's beautiful
novel, too, and it was crucial back in 1961. But the story in "Blood
Done Sign My Name" unfolds two years after the assassination of
Martin Luther King, Jr., in an America wracked by riots and divided
by the "Southern strategy" that lifted Richard Nixon on the flood
tide of white backlash. I feared Stuart was going to turn my gritty,
complex history into a gooey hymn to the Good White People.
When I met Stuart, however, it turned out we felt the same way about
Hollywood and the civil rights movement. And he, too, was a
preacher's son from small-town North Carolina who'd contemplated the
tangled history of race in which we both grew up. Stuart's "Blood
Done Sign My Name" comes out this Friday in theaters across the
country. This is not a documentary, and it's more exciting than "Die
Hard," if you ask me.
Of course, a book-bound historian would have spent more analytical
energy on class tensions or the politics of gender. But those are
things that books do well. This movie brings the complex battles of
the Black Power era to vivid life, in which we can see the faces of
flawed, well-meaning people like ourselves, snared in a hard history
and trying to do the right thing, which often isn't enough.
We're all in there, black and white, comfortable and impoverished,
educated and otherwise, fearful and prophetic, all of us human. This
is not the sugar-coated history that pop culture usually offers,
although there are sweet moments. Instead, it leaves us driving
toward a future that could be much better, but could be even worse.
And it leads us to ask, in the words of Dr. King, "Where do we go from here?"
Not only that, but the special effects are really cool.
Timothy B. Tyson is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for
Documentary Studies at Duke University and Visiting Professor of
American Christianity and Southern Culture, Duke Divinity School