Films against Racism

 

Many films artistically advocate a stand against racism in whichever ugly form it manifests itself. I remember a handful.

They have caused me to react in shock and  anger. On a few occasions they have inspired me. It forced me to take stock of my surroundings, particularly when prejudice challenged me to respond.

These films show the brutality and cruelty of racism in different milieu. Do not be fooled into thinking that racism is confined to the deluded perception of differences between human beings because of skin pigmentation.

 

American History X

This is Edward Norton’s finest film. He plays a paranoid young white American, Derek,  fed up with crime and grime in his neighbourhood. He blames its degradation on  immigrants and African-Americans perceived to be weak.

He joins a neo-Nazi and racist movement. Derek is sentenced to a lengthy jail term for killing a black youth who breaks into his home.

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He crosses his Rubicon after he is raped by a fellow neo-Nazi in prison. He learns that insecure fraternization in self-loathing and hatred is destructive. He uses his oratorical skills to motivate and rescue his younger brother from a similar fate.

 

Amistad

This is Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the historic insurrection by African slaves being transported to America. It tells how these men and women meet their fate as a consequence of their rebellion against their slave masters. It shows how America’s history is altered through their actions. It reminds the viewer of the importance of upholding the American constitution.

 

A Patch of Blue

Sidney Poitier is remembered  for pioneering roles in which he confronts racism. In an era of ignorance and abuse, he is a leading light among black American actors.

In an era of civil uprisings, mostly non-violent and peaceful, led by leaders Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X, against racist laws and racism, Sidney Poitier joins Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue which tells the touching story of a young black American’s love-stricken rescue of a physically blind young (white) woman from similar impoverishment and abuse.

 

A Raisin in the Sun

Poitier had a leading part in this film which is based on the original Broadway play by Lorrainne Hansberry. It is more of a tale about economic survival by a black American family living in the segregated neighbourhood of Chicago’s South Side. But the underlying struggle against racial oppression is evident and cannot be missed.

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Boys Don’t Cry

Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for this brave, gender-bending role. She plays Brandon Teena who was incorrectly categorised as a trans man.

It is the true story of the anatomically born (young) woman who is brutally raped and murdered after her identity is revealed. Although it also tells the story of her relationship with Lana Tisdel, it is incorrectly billed as a romance.

The story foregrounds the struggle of a psychologically tortured woman’s unsuccessful efforts to have that life-changing operation to bring her peace in both body and spirit. She is severely limited and tested by her economically poor background. The story highlights the disgusting violence perpetrated by men filled with equal doses of ignorance and hatred.

 

Do the Right Thing

This is Spike Lee’s best “joint”.

He fully immerses himself in the leading role of Mookie, an unambitious and disillusioned young black man who delivers cold pizza’s for his hard-working Italian American boss, Salvatore who, in turn, learns that he is tragically no less racist than his useless son, Pino, and the horde of disgruntled black youths who trash and burn his pizzeria one hot New York summer’s night.

Just about every character is flawed in this film. There are no angels.

The film’s stellar cast includes Samuel L Jackson who plays the neo-liberal DJ, Mister Senor Love Daddy, or Sam Jackson no less. He does not take sides in this mini-racial war which acutely replicates many similar acts of physical and verbal violence across America.

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This typically unconventional Spike Lee Joint deserves a lot more credit than it received. I enjoyed Lee’s manipulation of  metaphors, from the heat wave, which causes tempers to flare, to the funky anthem which calls you to “Fight the Power.”

Ossie Davis, as Da Mayor, and his reluctant paramour, Ruby Dee’s Mother Sister, are the heroes of this entertaining show in which even the elderly, usually looked up to for moral guidance and example, fall infallibly short and relent towards the violent manifestations of racism.

 

Flawless

Never mind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s award-winning performance as the gay writer, Truman Capote in Capote.

This lesser-known film is a gem. Hoffman plays gay drag queen, Rusty. Filled with self-love and pity, he rehabilitates a conservative and stroke-inflicted police officer, Walt (Robert de Niro), and leads the bitter homophobe towards personal and public redemption.

De Niro’s ongoing rants of  “fucking faggot” are still ringing in my ears.

 

Gandhi

Richard Attenborough died recently.

He is remembered as a lifelong and vigilant campaigner against racism, particularly at the height of apartheid in South Africa, and for his many acting roles.

He is fondly remembered for his role in Steven Spielberg’s persuasive direction of Jurassic Park. I remember him more for his part in The Guinea Pig where a young boy on a scholarship to an exclusive British public school is cruelly persecuted.

Richard Attenborough’s opus and most important achievement as a film director is undoubtedly his masterful and very long biographical visual journey of Gandhi.

This lengthy historical drama is relevant to South Africa. The young attorney at law, shedding his legal cloth and substituting it with his more famous and modest homespun cloth, encounters racism at the hands of the British Empire in South Africa for the first time. He pioneers the disciplined act of non-violent civil disobedience and protest action.

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A poignant moment in this monumental film occurs when the young Gandhi, still in his lawyer’s suit, bravely burns his pass-book in front of the British military authorities and invites his reluctant disciples to follow his example.

Years later there is a moment now enshrined in South African history. Thousands of black South Africans, including Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, emulate the great Mahatma’s actions.

 

Gran Torino

It is a touching, underestimated story.

The grumpy old man himself, Clint Eastwood, not renowned for his acting abilities, endears himself as one of my favourite movie characters, Walt Kowalski, a stubbornly independent widower and pensioner, dealing with incurable lung cancer, his selfish heirs, a crumbling neighbourhood and his strange Hmong neighbours.

It also highlights the old adage that man’s best friend is still his faithful dog.

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But then Walt encounters a young, inept Hmong boy who is forced to help him with chores around his house after misbehaving.

This lad is peer pressurized by his despicable cousin who leads a rag-tag armed gang.  Needless to say, this gang is no match for the growling, grumbling, mumbling ancient Kowalski, a Korean war veteran. Recognising his neighbours only as “gooks”, he begins a heart-warming process of acculturation and redeems himself by sacrificing his life for them.

 

. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

This is Sidney Poitier’s best known film.

A young black American, with an equally young white girlfriend in tow, faces up to her stern father, famously played by Spencer Tracey who deviates from his off-screen long-term relationship with Katherine Hepburn. Both husband and wife are forced to deal with their daughter’s previously forbidden, unconventional  and uncustomary choice of lover. The studious and impressionable John is more than a match for the elderly and conservative Matt who is faced with the prospect of a future son-in-law, not only superior to him in intellect, stature and humility, but black.

 

In the Heat of the Night

Poitier again.

He plays a black detective in the heart of the American Deep South which is plagued by racism. He has to rely on his sharp wit and the instinctive integrity of the town’s sheriff (Rod Steiger) to overcome non-co-operative townspeople in solving a murder.

 

Invictus

Morgan Freeman acting as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, remains memorable.

Clint Eastwood’s sentimental piece narrates the unconventional leadership shown by the great man in bringing a racially divided nation together through the sport of rugby, once the preserve of race-obsessed white Afrikaners.

When I first saw Freeman play the part of the ground-breaking school principal in Lean On Me years before Invictus, I believed that he would play Mandela. Not only because of his acting talent. Freeman bears a remarkable resemblance to Mandela. And in Invictus he played his part to near-perfection. He nearly perfected Mandela’s gravelly voice.

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Clint Eastwood’s team researched this project very well. Invictus, which takes its title from the book by John Carlin and the poem of the same name, is an accurate account of those heady days when Mandela united a nation, if only for a few days, and inspired a beleaguered home team, far from favourites, to win the rugby world cup. And of all the cup finals I’ve seen, this one takes the cake.

 

 Jungle Fever

Spike Lee tackles the sensitive issue of interracial relationships.

He takes it a step further. He exposes  an interracial sexual relationship. He unravels the unpleasant consequences of a failed marriage and an adulterous relationship. He exposes the prejudices of both African-Americans and Italian-Americans when they unanimously oppose this tryst. The love-lorn Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes are in the middle of it and are forced to end it.

This film is also backed by a funky Stevie Wonder soundtrack. Its lyrics are a perfect fit for this story, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet fable.

 

Malcolm X

Spike Lee nearly burned his fingers with this ambitious project, but thankfully the lengthy biographical picture was well worth watching, accurately showing the life and times of the controversial Muslim leader from his childhood years to his assassination.

Denzel Washington’s performance was sterling, but sometimes his method acting seemed to get in the way of an intricate character study.

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It was not a good film, but it was a nostalgic journey for me.

I saw British-born actor, Idris Elba bravely play the part of South Africa’s greatest citizen, Nelson Mandela, who liberated South Africans from apartheid rule and initiated a peaceful programme of reconciliation and non-racialism among all races, cultures and religions. Elba tried, but he could never match the acting talents of American actors, Sidney Poitier and Morgan Freeman.

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I enjoyed this film in spite of its flaws. It did not matter that it never matched my detailed reading of Mandela’s biography of a similar name. Visually, it left me with a pleasant and warm impression. It  reminded me of the bad days. It reminded me of the few good years that Mandela left us with. Now, he is no longer with us, but alongside the other great liberators of our age, we have enough visual montages and thousands of pages of literary writings to fall back on.

 

 Mississippi Burning

This film is loosely based on the racially motivated murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.

Two FBI agents with contrasting approaches to crime investigation are forced to collaborate to bring racist murderers to book. The murdered victims are both black and Jewish. Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) is a liberal Northerner, while his partner, Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) is better suited to catching the racial supremacists, because of his history as a Mississippi sheriff and understanding of what makes racists tic.

While the audience watches the detectives draw closer to their target, they learn that the murderers are members of the infamous Ku Klux Klan.

 

Mr and Mrs Loving

I remember this touching television drama for showing the heartfelt warmth between a humble, gentle white American man and his equally generous and beautiful black American lover.

I remember it for the tragedies that visit these two wonderful lovers as a consequence of their interracial relationship which was condemned in the strongest terms by their fellow townsfolk.

Timothy Hutton’s acting career has waned over the years. This, too, is sad. If there is one thing I remember Hutton for, it is the “good guy” roles in his earlier years as an actor. I remember his dramatic role alongside the reckless Sean Penn in The Falcon and the Snowman. And let us not forget Hutton’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in Ordinary People.

 

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s multiple award-winning adaptation of Booker prize-winning author Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark is probably the best body of film work visualising and memorializing events  of the Holocaust during the Second World War.

It is deliberately filmed in black and white to give it a realistic newsreel effect. Yet it does more. It heightens the grim realities of the persecution of Polish Jews at the height of the Nazi insurrection of that country which has been persecuted for centuries by more powerful empires surrounding it.

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The stellar acting cast, from the leading actors, Liam Neeson to Ralph Fiennes, to the rest of the supporting players, contribute heavily to the drama. The fear in the faces of the female Jews and the callous hatred and cruelty of the Nazi officers and their soldiers can never be forgotten. When I first saw this movie on the big screen I had never seen a man bawl so heavily in public on leaving the cinema at this movie’s ending. It was horrific.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird

This film is the most important film on racism within the canon of great films since the silent movie era.

It is significant on both historical and artistic levels. It, too, was appropriately filmed in black and white and won acclaimed actor, Gregory Peck, an Academy Award for best actor. The film’s producer, Alan J Pakula, perhaps better known for his directorial work on William Styron’s Holocaust tome, Sophie’s Choice, deservedly won his only Oscar for this film.

It won the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Harper Lee, a close friend of Truman Capote. In a strange turn of literary history, Harper Lee, never wrote another novel after producing one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

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On the surface, the story appears to be a simple one, seen through the eyes of a girl. Not understanding it, the child, nick-named Scout, witnesses first-hand the blatant racism of white townsfolk towards their negro counterparts who are forced to live on the fringes of Maycomb, a small fictional town based on Lee’s own Alabama town of Monroeville.

Because of racism, a black man is wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, and it is left to the girl’s liberal and righteous father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) to prove his innocence to racists who seek to use African-Americans as scapegoats to excuse their exploitative behaviour.

 

 Torch Song Trilogy

In the genre of gay films, this movie is my favourite, although the story, already sad, was grim and horrible to the core.

It is a bittersweet love story between two unlikely companions (Harvey Fierstein and Mathew Broderick).  Needless to say, the story’s two central characters are faced with difficult challenges in attempting to maintain their unconventional friendship.

This is yet another film adaptation of a successful Broadway play.

Two scenes in this film stood out for me. During the film’s opening scenes the young, gay child, Arnold Beckoff,  is quite literally caught in his mother’s closet applying make-up to his face, clothed in her shoes and outfits. It sets the scene for his life-long battle with his mother for acceptance and love.

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The other scene is, visually, one the most violent I have seen. And it is in stark contrast with the rest of the endearing story which tugs at heartstrings and enforces titters.  Broderick’s character, Alan Simon, Beckoff’s reluctant and shy lover, is brutally beaten by homophobic men. Broderick’s make-up effects show the extent of such a brutal, cowardly and collective beating.

 

As I end this post, I am soberly reminded that most incidents of racial oppression are carried out by men and women who categorise themselves as white, Aryan, or Caucasian.

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