The portrayal of civil rights and the black experience in cinema has been a multifaceted and fascinating one. From early depictions of blacks as sexual predators and threats in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Tarantino’s blaxploitation ex-slave savior in Django Unchained, the black experience in America has been charted through cinematic journeys that reflect the time the films were created just as much as the eras in which they are set. In this paper, the films Birth of a Nation, Do the Right Thing, 2011’s The Help and 2012’s Django Unchained will be examined as cinematic depictions of civil rights in America, particularly in terms of white-black relations during the milestones of slavery, Civil Rights-era society and 1980s-era inner-city tensions.
One of the first filmic depictions of the slave era was D. W. Griffith’s incendiary silent film Birth of a Nation, depicting blacks as lustful sexual predators who need to be stopped by brave men from taking their white women and sullying them. Depicting the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in a sympathetic light, the film experienced significant backlash for its favorable portrayal of racism – nonetheless, it was a commercial success. The film was the first feature film to be presented at the White House, and its use of innovative cinematic techniques like panning, huge setpieces with hundreds of extras, and long shots made it a new type of spectacle never before seen.
The film popularized the image of the Ku Klux Klan in American culture as a mob of men dressed in white pointed hats and robes, and exposed new audiences to this type of storytelling. In that respect alone, the film became extremely important to American cultural and political history. However, despite its importance as a pioneering work of epic filmmaking scope and production, its racial subtexts are extremely problematic, and absolutely view blacks as a “ problem” that needs to be “ solved.” All of the black characters in the film are portrayed by white actors in blackface, with only a few of the ‘ good ones’ (the servants of the Camerons) to condescendingly attempt to even out the message of the film. While this perspective was met with controversy even at the time, it set a dangerous precedent for future films that is found
Spike Lee’s incendiary, stylish film Do the Right Thing is a wonderful example of race relations in the late 1980s; in the face of police brutality and gang warfare in the ghettos of America, a fine line exists between black pride and equality, portrayed elegantly and energetically by director Spike Lee. Multiculturalism is at a razor’s edge in this film, with many members of the community being one arbitrary offense away from being beaten or killed by an insensitive police force, or prejudiced, conflicted whites in their own neighborhood.
The film takes place in a predominantly black neighborhood of Brooklyn, where blacks and Italians have a shaky racial relationship. The owner of a pizzeria, Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons (John Turturro and Richard Edson) exist in a vacuum among an urban community in the middle of a heat wave. An issue arises based on two black members of the community (one named Radio Raheem) insisting that Sal put up pictures of black people on the walls of his pizzeria, due to the community in which he works. He refuses, citing the fact that only whites own the business.
One vital tenet of critical race theory is everyday racism – ” in many ways the most emotionally draining, stress-provoking forms of racism are the rule, not the exception”. The actions of whites in the film are an example of everyday racism – Sal does not think he is being racist, but merely protecting his business by maintaining a solely white presence in this black neighborhood. The refusal to put pictures of black figures on the walls, however well-argued the resistance, is only shunned upon by Sal because of his own, institutionalized prejudices against blacks. He sees them as trash, and despite needing them to further his business he does not want the pizzeria to become black.
The actions of the police are indicative of everyday racism as well – in the era of the film, Rodney King-style police brutality is the rule instead of the exception, leaving the blacks of the community with an institutionalized fear of the police, as they are far too easy to come down on the members of the community at the slightest provocation. This is made clear at the death of Radio Raheem, whose actions are returned with a fatal beating.
The defining moment of the film – Mookie (Spike Lee) throwing a garbage can into Sal’s window, sparking a race riot – is one of the most powerful images in black cinema, as it showcases a defiant image of rage at the death of a man due to racism (Radio Raheem). There are many who have differing opinions as to whether or not Mookie “ does the right thing” by doing this; in one way, Mookie may have saved Sal’s life by throwing the trash can, as it distracts the mob from him onto his property. On the other hand, he may have simply wanted to incite violence as an outburst of his own. This is an example of an attempt to reverse or correct the everyday racism that is evident in Sal’s behavior and attitudes toward blacks.
In 2011’s The Help, the hard work that is put in to allow blacks to take ownership of their own struggles in Do the Right Thing is somewhat undone by the patriarchal and white-friendly tone of the film. The film centers around Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), two hardworking African-American maids in the height of the Civil Rights Era who constantly struggle with discrimination and racism as a result of their environment (the Jim Crow South). With the help of a young white woman named Skeeter (Emma Stone), these two women, and many other black maids in the area, get to tell their story while challenging conceptions of their intelligence and worth as human beings. While this sounds nice on the surface, the film ends up providing a problematically paternalistic view of race; the maids themselves do not dream of actively resisting until forward-thinking Skeeter (constantly praised by the film for her progressiveness) gives them the outlet by which to do so. Framing the film in this way gives more credit to Skeeter than the embittered, oppressed women she is highlighting, and the use of cheap gags against racists (e. g. Milly making antagonist Holly eat a pie made of feces) is meant to elicit cheap, knowing laughs from white audiences. This creates the shallow impression of racial progressiveness, when in fact it merely allows white audiences to pat themselves on the back for not being cartoonish racists, instead of actually engaging with race relations and civil rights on a deeper level.
However, one year later the world of film revisits the issue of slavery and the Civil War in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘ slavesploitation’ film Django Unchained, in which the opposite end of the spectrum established and perpetuated by The Help occurs. In this film, ex-slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is most certainly helped by a paternalistic white presence (Christoph Waltz’s King Schultz), and in this respect the two films are similar; however, where it differs is that the film makes no bones in establishing Schultz as Django’s sidekick; while Schultz does most of the talking, it is Django’s journey to walk on. Schultz’s final act death firmly hands the film over to Django fully, allowing him to plunge headfirst into the action he has been waiting strongly and silently to fulfill.
Unlike the raping, needlessly aggressive slaves of Birth of a Nation, Tarantino’s Django fights for righteous revenge against acts that were done unto him first, and fights for monogamous love (his wife Broomhilde) as opposed to indiscriminate sexual violence. In this way, the character presents a revenge fantasy for disenfranchised blacks during the antebellum South – one who can stand on equal footing with white men and best them on their own terms. By showing cartoonishly violent displays of the horror of racism, and a rebellious slave who is willing to get down in the dirt in order to take back his freedom and that of his wife’s, Tarantino “ attempts to do justice both to the horrors of history and to the humanity of those oppressed”. Instead of having patiently waiting, saintly African-Americans turning the other cheek until a white person can save them (as in The Help), Django follows in the tradition of Spike Lee’s Mookie in taking violent action to save himself, and to symbolically stand up against institutions of racism and infringement of freedoms.
In conclusion, the films Birth of a Nation, Do the Right Thing, The Help and Django Unchained reveal a constantly shifting and changing aspect of the black experience in film, as times change and perspectives change with them. Griffith’s film starts the history of blacks in film with an incendiary and inexcusable (but for its pioneering film techniques) story of predatorial and antagonistic blacks who must be guarded against by pure white warriors. Seventy years later, Spike Lee attempts to take back the black experience with his tense yet authentic portrayal of the difficulties blacks have living amongst racial prejudice and police brutality. Meanwhile, The Help sets back civil rights in film somewhat with its paternalistic take on black women finding agency with the help of a well-meaning white person, and Tarantino turns this paternalism on its head by making Django the true hero of his film Django Unchained. All of this results in a film culture that continues to not truly know how to accurately or fairly portray civil rights and race relations in film, but for a few notable and positive examples.
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