Race and Civil Rights Dramas in Hollywood

Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Photo: Columbia Pictures.
Katharine Houghton and Sidney Poitier in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Photo: Columbia Pictures.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, starring the iconic Sidney Poitier. During the 1960s, when the film was released, Hollywood produced few movies about the political activism that comprised the civil rights movement. Instead, the movie industry turned to Sidney Poitier to offer representations of black middle-class respectability and colorblind racial discourse in hopes of changing the hearts and minds of whites across the country. Yet, Hollywood’s most celebrated civil rights drama debuted three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, amid a very different political climate. The film’s premiere in December 1967 was fourteen months after Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and nearly eighteen months after Stokely Carmichael, director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, began making calls for “Black Power.” James Baldwin, writing in July 1968, noted the contradiction between Hollywood’s images of black respectability vis-à-vis Poitier’s roles and the desires of the burgeoning Black Power movement, “white Americans appear to be under the compulsion to dream, whereas black Americans are under the compulsion to awaken.”

The 2016 Hollywood year wrapped up a few Sundays ago with the Academy Awards. While the record six black actor nominations and the Best Picture Oscar for the black queer film Moonlight is reason to celebrate, Baldwin’s assessment of the movie industry endures. Indexing Hollywood’s “diversity problem” strictly to volume fails to fully comprehend the movie industry’s problematic relationship with black lives broadly, and with black history explicitly.

Hollywood civil rights dramas have played an essential role in the articulation and influence of the racial ideology of colorblindness in the decades since the 1960s. Hollywood versions of civil rights appeared on screen at crucial moments in which debates about the legacy of the civil rights movement fundamentally influenced civil rights policy. For as much hope as a film like Moonlight offers, last year’s two Hollywood civil rights dramas—Hidden Figures and Loving—demonstrate the deep rootedness of industry’s “colorblind aesthetics.” I define “colorblind aesthetics” as a series of well-established film techniques that, beginning in the late 1980s, routinely situate colorblind white heroism at the center of civil rights dramas and encourage identification among white spectators. These aesthetics have done nothing to advance the cause for black liberation but have instead proven essential to the reinforcement of white supremacy through the articulation of the racial ideology of colorblindness in the post-civil rights era.

It was not until the late 1980s, on the heels of the Reagan presidency, that Hollywood began dramatizing the civil rights movement on screen in earnest. As Reagan left office, Hollywood began producing films about the Southern struggle for civil rights that framed colorblindness as the foundation of the movement and represented colorblind white heroes not merely as participants in but as the leaders of the struggle. Reagan himself, a longtime opponent of civil rights, sought to reframe the civil rights movement in American memory to his political advantage earlier in the decade. By 1983, he faced an onslaught of criticism from civil rights groups. With a reelection bid on the horizon, he reversed his opposition to the rising calls for a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. This enabled Reagan to both pacify critics of his positions on civil rights and routinely position himself thereafter as the inheritor of King’s colorblind “dream”—a society in which “all men are created equal” and should be judged “not..by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”—in order to attack civil rights through the very colorblind language of the movement itself.

Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo: Flickr/Ammabel Masangkay.
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) in ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016). Photo: Flickr/Ammabel Masangkay.

By the late 1980s, as colorblind ideology matured and began to wield increasing influence on federal civil rights policy, Hollywood, like Reagan, rediscovered civil rights and made a number of films, including Mississippi Burning (1988) and The Long Walk Home (1989), that insert a colorblind white hero at the narrative’s center. These films proved essential in the rise of colorblind ideology. The movies made about black freedom struggles in the late 1980s and 1990s were instrumental in representing colorblind justice as a driving force throughout American history, thereby encouraging the conflation of colorblindness and racial justice in order to use colorblind discourse to justify the elimination of race-conscious civil rights programs like affirmative action in the present.

More recently, the Barack Obama presidency reinvigorated celebrations of a “post-racial” America. Hollywood capitalized on this sentiment by again turning its focus to the civil rights era through films like The Help (2011), The Butler (2013), and Selma (2014). Last year gave us two more Hollywood civil rights dramas—Hidden Figures and Loving. Hidden Figures is based on the essential contributions of black women scientists, or “computers,” to the NASA Space Program, and Loving is a drama about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage eventually led to the dismantling of anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country. Together, these two films embody the colorblind aesthetics of the Hollywood civil rights genre.

While Hidden Figures was in many ways careful to avoid the pitfalls of The Help, the film’s central tension is ultimately not between Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), as one would expect, but between Al Harrison, the lead mathematician on the Space Task Group and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Harrison’s lead engineer. The film therefore becomes too much about competing notions of white masculinity—the bigot vs. the colorblind—which detracts from the agency and import of the black women at the film’s center. The central example of this is when Al Harrison, after learning that Ms. Johnson is habitually away from her desk because she must walk a considerable distance to find a “colored” bathroom, heroically takes a baseball bat to the segregated bathroom sign. Given that this never happened, combined with the way the sequence is shot—highlighting Harrison’s effort and determination to destroy segregation literally and symbolically—it seems added to the narrative for no other reason than to once again use the true stories of black freedom fighters to demonstrate an ever-present colorblind white heroism that ends up disproportionately credited for black liberation.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard in Loving (2016). Photo: Ben Rothstein/Big Beach Films via AP.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard in ‘Loving’ (2016). Photo: Ben Rothstein/Big Beach Films via AP.

Loving, on the other hand, centers colorblind white heroism through its aesthetics. In one sequence, for example, when Richard (Joel Edgerton) posts bail shortly after Mildred (Ruth Negga) and he are jailed for the first time, the sheriff prohibits Richard from bailing out his wife. Richard must therefore wait until after the weekend to speak with the judge about his case. This leaves Mildred in jail and Richard hamstrung on the outside, unable to help his wife. During the wait, we see only a single, very brief shot of Mildred inside her cell. The camera spends the rest of the several minutes of action between the time Richard and Mildred are released with Richard. We see him anguish on his front porch over what course of action to take to free his wife. We watch him parked outside the jail late at night trying to catch a glimpse of his beloved, tormented he cannot help her.

The film, in other words, highlights Richard’s suffering and holds Mildred’s off-screen, even though it is Mildred who remains in jail, clueless about her release and unsure of her safety while her husband walks free. As literary scholar Saidiya Hartman argues, in requiring “that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible…in making other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration.” The formal choices by director Jeff Nichols in Loving too often render the couple’s injustice legible largely through Richard, which often occludes Mildred’s experiences. Ultimately, Loving indulges in the colorblind aesthetics of the Hollywood civil rights drama.

Over the past twenty-five or so years American audiences have found cinematic portrayals of an invented colorblind past more entertaining than representations of civil rights struggle centered around the political agency of black activists. The latter has proven largely illegible in the colorblind era. Last year’s civil rights dramas, Hidden Figures and Loving, reveal the intractability of those generic conventions. Hollywood civil rights dramas have, over the past three decades, consistently turned to black freedom struggles in order to reinforce and reaffirm notions of colorblind white heroism. These civil rights dramas are, ultimately, only “based on a true story,” and that gap, to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot, between “what happened and that which is said to have happened” has enabled Hollywood to significantly shape racial discourse in the post-civil rights era. These films, more importantly, are more than just “white-washing” history. They have played an essential role in the articulation of colorblindness by offering historical “evidence” of a colorblind past that has served to realign and reinforce white supremacy in the post-civil rights era.

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Justin Gomer

Justin Gomer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. His research focuses on race and popular culture in the post-civil rights era. Justin's work appears in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, the Washington Post, and Boston Review, among others. He is currently writing a book entitled, Colorblindness, A Life: The Political and Cultural Biography of an Ideology, which offers an interdisciplinary biography of the racial ideology of colorblindness. Follow him on Twitter @ProfessorGomer.

Comments on “Race and Civil Rights Dramas in Hollywood

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    One Potato, Two Potato (1964) is a far better film about white/black marriages than “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

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    A beautiful story about a sweet “friendship” between a black man and a blind, white woman, from 1965. Cutting edge for back then. “A Patch of Blue” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059573/

    Also, from Great Britain, 1961, “A Taste of Honey,” where a working class young white girl gets pregnant by a black sailor. Although, the story is more about her becoming more mature and her relationship with her gay neighbor–the story line was pretty progressive for 1961, in more ways than one. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055506/?ref_=nv_sr_1

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