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Five Surprisingly Racist Movies About Civil Rights
The Help isn't the first movie to turn civil rights into a story about nice white people.
By Phil Nugent
The Help is a new movie about the relationship between sassy young Mississippi white girl Emma Stone and her colored maids, and how such relationships affected the struggle for racial equality; it promises to be one more movie about how important the civil rights movement was for all those courageous white people. Hollywood has been using the fight against race discrimination as story fodder for decades now, and sometimes, they've managed to get it more wrong than seems humanly possible.
1. Hurry, Sundown (1967)
Director Otto Preminger's contribution to the civil rights cause was this stern indictment of a racist South, which was itself indicted by critics and audiences for its retrograde depiction of eye-popping, childishly innocent blacks who just want to be left alone to enjoy their fried chicken and watermelon. This movie is so out of touch for its time that it's a wonder Preminger didn't hire white actors to play the characters in blackface. It couldn't have been any more embarrassing than Michael Caine's attempt at a Southern accent.
2. Cry Freedom (1987)
In the 1980s, the focus of the civil rights movement shifted to ending apartheid in South Africa. Looking to get in on the act, director Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) announced that he was making a movie about the life of the murdered South African activist Stephen Biko (played by Denzel Washington). He then made a movie about the heroism of the world's most boring white guy (Kevin Kline), who, after Biko's death, dared to write a book about him. The movie wildly exaggerates the drama of how Biko's biographer got himself and his manuscript out of the country, and still leaves you wondering how anyone could think there was a movie in it. This would make a great double feature with Clint Eastwood's more recent Invictus, which suggests that Nelson Mandela's number-one priority after being released from prison was to show white South Africans how crazy he was about their favorite rugby team.
3. Mississippi Burning (1988)
This big, hysterical, violent melodrama about the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964 makes the black characters look like defenseless, albeit saintly, chumps. The heroes who wade in, swinging with both fists and kicking the bejesus out of the racists, are the strong white men of the FBI — the same guys who, in the actual history of the period, were tapping Martin Luther King's phone and sending him notes urging him to commit suicide. Director Alan Parker explained to interviewers that he falsified everything about the true story he was purporting to tell because he thought it was an important story that audiences needed to hear about, and if the movie bore any resemblance to that story, nobody would come to the theater.
4. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
This movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1989, the same year that Spike Lee thought he deserved the Nobel Prize in Movies for Do the Right Thing. Because of this, Spike Lee will still be complaining about much he despises this film on his deathbed. Still, the film had some critics with less of a personal stake in it than Lee. Many of them felt that 1989 was a little late for a movie that "personalizes" changing race relations in the South through the story of a cranky old white lady who, after nearly an hour and a half, finally manages to be decent to her black driver.
5. Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
In 1994, justice was finally served for civil rights activist Medgar Evers, when Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of his 1963 murder. Justice has yet to be served for Evers's widow, who had to live to see herself played by Whoopi Goldberg in a crappy movie. This film assumes that whites will only feel comfortable watching a black woman in Myrlie Evers' position if she seems too blissed out on her own all-accepting saintliness to be really angry about what's been done to her family. (The real Myrlie Evers has a mean mouth on her. Remember when you could say that about Whoopi Goldberg?) Small wonder that the heroic white lawyer (Alec Baldwin) who has to share scenes with her seems to be having trouble keeping his eyelids propped up.