Racism Myths Films Still Love to "Dispel"
Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Film is something I learned to adore as a child rushing with my friends to the Saturday matinee for kids at one of the five local theaters in our town. I loved the Westerns, the cartoons and the always-incomplete serials. Film became a part of my DNA in a way only those Saturday treats could implant it. No need for exotic research techniques, just give me a quarter and I was off to heaven on Earth with my friends.
Once, during one of my many career explorations earlier in my life, I managed to wangle my way into doing film reviews (very few) and sat in the most gorgeous screening rooms in Manhattan. Didn't matter because I was a filmophile for life no matter where they showed the films. Black-and-white or color films were the staff of life and I eagerly embraced the New Wave and everything after it except, of course, Warhol whose films I never enjoyed. I still cherish digital copies of all my favorites.
A car entered the scene and now I was really pumped on films as I drove miles out on Long Island to a theater that showed all foreign films. Weekly, I'd drive out with one of my older nephews in tow to see the latest films which were not shown in my home town. There was no audience at home, only in the outer reaches where the wealthier people lived.
The years have passed, the films have come and gone and because of one fortunate break, I am a member of the SAG-AFTRA union. As a result, I have received screeners or invitations to screenings and a year or so ago I was randomly picked to vote for films to be considered for the yearly awards. True heaven again.
Yes, I love "The Member of the Wedding" and Ethel Water's performance as the kindly black woman who works in Frankie's house. Type cast, for sure, and I accepted it. Then there was Butterfly McQueen in "Gone With the Wind." Made to look somewhat dimwitted, she nevertheless struck her mark in film history. Didn't really warm to Curtis and Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" with the same old story line; racist white man forms "friendship" with a black man. For sure, I enjoyed "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Help" has to be right up there for me.
Now we are, once again, in the midst of awards season in a time in our country where we need healing. But does using the same old story line of the bigot turning that mental corner to become friends with a black man still work? Yes, I liked "The Green Book" and the white guy reminded me of a friend's family; mostly had friendly relationships with the mob and were totally racist.
I'm not saying that "The Green Book" isn't an enjoyable film even if it is totally predictable. What I am wondering is if it should win an award because people voting are feeling ashamed of what has happened in our country. Film may help to heal, but not as much as those casual passings in stores, on elevators and in our neighborhoods. Films are not the vaccine for racism or bigotry or anti-semitism and to continuously present an almost story tale view of any of this is truly "suspension of disbelief" which all films require you buy.
"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" won nine international film awards but what did it do to quell anti-semitism? What did "Gentleman's Agreement" do for that matter? What has "Triumph of the Will" done in America? This Nazi propaganda film is still highly sought by the racists in our country and seen as highly desirable in its content. Then, of course, there's "Seven Beauties" to balance this a bit.
Does film have a responsibility to open our eyes to something with which we are already familiar or is it only to sell tickets at the box office or sales online? Artistic expression or cultural mandate for equality? Meaning or meaningless?