HOLLYWOOD AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT Ann Hornaday reflects on the new film Talk to Me in today's Washington Post, leading her to wonder why "the story of the most important social and political moment in this country's history has gone untold in its dominant narrative art form."
Why, in other words, isn't there a major Hollywood film about the civil rights movement?
This is different than a film set in the civil rights era. Such movies tend to have certain historical flaws. Hornaday aptly notes that Mississippi Burning "engaged in a certain degree of revisionism, valorizing the white investigators of the crimes rather than emphasizing the heroic stories of their nominal subjects." Forrest Gump, as she writes, "inserted its dim Candide of a protagonist into a trivialized pastiche of American social history, reducing the 1963 March on Washington to a 'Zelig'-like stunt." Compare the school integration scene in that film with the real life event it references and the degree to which the filmmakers "cleaned it up" is pretty amazing. Movies that use the movement generally portray it via a white protagonist, with the intense violence of white supremacist backlash lessened, and the politics of the participants made to seem moderate rather than distinctly leftist.
Many people are simply forgotten. Martin Luther King, Jr. is sometimes in a film's background, as is the case in Talk to Me. But Bob Moses and Fred Shuttlesworth? Not so much. The King-associated Southern Christian Leadership Conference might get at best a simplified mention, but the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) hardly has a chance.
Looking at the politics of films is a complicated thing, easy to both under- and over-state. But considering the plethora of films about the sixties, it's telling that the story of the civil rights movement has never been told in its full complexity and difficulty.