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Hollywood Takes the Civil Rights Movement to the Big Screen (With Mixed Success)

With the election of our first black president an indicator of the strides this country has made in becoming a “post-racial” society, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a special resonance this year. It also serves as a reminder, to many, of how far we’ve yet to go. Many of the struggles of the civil rights movement are still with us, and it’s worth taking time out this week to note the movie industry’s take on the dramatic events and social trends that have populated the movement over time.

ghosts of mississippi.JPGGhosts of Mississippi (1996)
James Woods’ over-the-top characterization goes a long way toward rescuing this very earnest film from death by piousness. As Byron De La Beckwith, the white supremacist who assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers and walked away free after his first two trials ended in deadlocked juries, Woods is repellent, yet strangely sympathetic: He seems like an actual, flawed human being rather than a caricature, and that makes all the difference.


 Malcolm X (1992)
In Spike Lee’s powerful biopic, Denzel Washington embodies the
controversial black nationalist, the yang to Martin Luther King’s yin.
And echoing the passions aroused by its subject, the movie ignited
debate and disagreement even before a single frame was shot. Protesters
in Harlem, including the poet Amiri Baraka, accused the director of
exploiting Malcolm X and threatened to boycott the finished movie — luckily for Lee, its box office run went largely without incident.

the long walk home.JPG

The Long Walk Home (1990)
As two women on opposite sides of the racial divide, Sissy Spacek and
Whoopi Goldberg give restrained, convincing performances as the proper
Southern housewife and her hardworking maid who become unlikely allies
during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955. Bus 2857, the very
one ridden by Rosa Parks, appears in the movie, although it was no
longer drivable and had to be towed with a cable. An A for effort for the producers who engineered that coup!

mississippi burning.jpgMississippi Burning (1988)
Structured like a classic crime drama, complete with a “good cop”
(Willem Dafoe) and a “bad cop” (Gene Hackman), this true story about the deaths of three civil-rights workers in 1964 was
justifiably praised for its stellar acting and for Alan Parker’s
direction. But some reviewers and historians complained that focusing
on the heroic (and white) FBI agents was revisionist, and insulting to
the true victims of the brutal incident on which the movie was based. Decide for yourself.

the intruder.jpg

The Intruder (1962)
Often described as Roger Corman’s most personal work, this drama stars a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as a viciously racist rabble-rouser who tries to incite his town against school desegregation. Corman faced some troubles of his own while filming in rural Missouri, as town after town gave his crew the boot. The movie earned him some of his best reviews, but did miserably at the box office — sadly, there’s no financial reward for being ahead of your time.


Hairspray (1988)

Director John Waters rarely judges humans for their darker impulses, but he takes a dim view of racial prejudice in this, the original Hairspray (before it became a Broadway musical and then a much flashier flick). Beneath the candy-coated camp of big bouffants and big-boned Ricky Lake lies a staunch defense of integration and equality, set to a catchy beat. The movie also features Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, and Divine, in his last on-screen appearance.

the jackie robinson story.JPGThe Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
America’s pastime was off-limits to many Americans until Jackie
Robinson famously crossed the color barrier and became the first black
man to play major league baseball in the modern era, when he joined the
Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson plays himself, so he can’t fail to
be convincing, and it’s a joy to watch him in action. The New York
review noted that “He may not be an ‘actor’ but he certainly is
no ‘ham.'”


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