When one thinks of the 1960s as an era, the black civil rights movement is something that will likely come to mind rather quickly. From figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, who spread awareness through speeches, to the likes of Bob Dylan, who spread it through music, the movement is one that is easily remembered. The March on Washington is a cultural moment unlike many others, and King’s speech is still quoted to this day. Malcolm X is still revered within both African-American and Islamic American communities, and even has a day dedicated to him – a day in which Berkeley, California treats as a bank holiday (Berkeleyside). And while music about the movement, namely the work of Bob Dylan, was consistently being made throughout the early 60s in particular, it took some time for mainstream cinema to catch up. In fact, some of the more iconic films detailing the movement, or related to the movement, were made after the fact, with the likes of Mississippi Burning (1988), Malcolm X (1992), and Selma (2014) being some of the most notable films about the issue. In this blogpost, I will explore how cinema of the 1960s, with some exceptions, largely shunned the rising issues brought forth by the black civil rights movement, and how only in more recent years have these issues been addressed and explored in the cinematic zeitgeist. For an era in America which was so heavily defined by the civil rights movement, the popular cinema of the time does not reflect these changing attitudes and explore the cultural movement, but rather seemed to largely ignore facing the issue head-on. By looking at films from both the 1960s and beyond, we can view how the civil rights movement has been reflected in cinema and how the rise of black auteurs in the industry helped to finally shine a much needed and authentic cinematic light upon these issues.
Of course, it’s far too simplistic to dismiss 1960s cinema entirely when discussing the civil rights movement and the racial issues that dominated the decade in America. While films may not have been made directly commenting upon the civil rights movement in the manner in which they were after the fact, films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) discussed racial issues prevalent in America. In the film, a young woman returns home from a ten day holiday with a new fiancé, a black man, to introduce him to her parents. The film explores the topical issue of interracial marriage, and the acceptance of interracial relationships from not only a societal viewpoint, but also from a more cultural and familial point of view. The young woman’s parents, portrayed by the ever-brilliant Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, would both be described, at least in the 1960s, as liberal in their political beliefs, yet both are shocked by their daughter’s groom-to-be. The film does an excellent job of exploring the idea of the “liberal” white America of the time, with her mother gradually becoming more accepting of the idea, while her father argues that, although he has no issue with it, he would fear everyone else would have issue with it, and would therefore make his daughter’s life a lot harder as a result. After all, at the time the production was filmed, interracial marriage was still illegal in a number of states across America – these laws were only reformed in June of 1967, when the US Supreme Court reviewed the case of Mildred and Richard Loving, a couple who had been jailed for interracial marriage in Virginia and subsequently ended all race-based restrictions on legal marriage in the country (Chemerinsky 757). The film, however, was shot between January and May of 1967 (Davidson 207), which could have rendered it outdated at the time of its release, if not for the focus on not only the societal reaction to the interracial relationship, but also the more cultural reaction of the lead character’s parents. A Patch of Blue (1965), released two years prior in 1965, shares not only the similarity of star Sidney Poitier, but also of dealing with the ideas of interracial relationships, although we are to believe that the relationship presented in A Patch of Blue is strictly platonic. In the film, a blind white woman meets a black man and the two begin to share an intimate friendship. The film interestingly subverts the ‘white saviour’ trope and instead portrays Poitier’s Gordon as the saviour from the abusive household that lead character Selina lives in. Against the societal background of the 1960s, this is an interesting film to examine, due to its portrayal of race and making the white characters appear as abusive and a threat, when common media seemed incessant on making that the role of the black American. It is important to note, however, that both of these films have white American writers and directors. There’s a level of authenticity to the African-American experience missing from these films due to the simple fact that those behind the film have not experienced it. The stories, while related to racial issues and set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, are told from a predominantly white point of view – whether it’s through Selina in A Patch of Blue, or the parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, there’s little being said of how this film actually relates to the black character, played by Sidney Poitier in both films, but rather placing him as pawn in a white discussion of race.
As time has progressed, more stories about the black civil rights movement have been told, and, in some cases, have been told through the gaze of black filmmakers. By looking at the three more contemporary films than those discussed previously, namely Mississippi Burning, Malcolm X and Selma – the latter two being directed by a black man and woman respectively, we can see how the civil rights movement’s portrayal in cinema has been changing and evolving from the 1960s onwards. Mississippi Burning, released in the late 1980s and set in the ‘60s, explored the disappearance of three civil rights activists in a conservative area. The film was well received by the masses and garnered plenty of Oscar buzz, and in many ways highlighted the issues of racial prejudice that was still present at the time of release. Nonetheless, a black writer for Time magazine, Jack E. White, was highly critical of the piece, calling it a “whitewash” and a “cinematic lynching of the truth” – the film was, again, written and directed by white men, and the liberties they took with the story, at least in the view of White, diminished the film and was just a case of “exploiting white America’s ignorance of historic racial oppression” (White). Like the aforementioned 1960s films, the film again plants a story of race in the hands of white characters, and only explores the issue of racism as it relates to them.
In 1992, the quintessential black American auteur, Spike Lee, directed a biopic about Malcolm X – a huge figure in the civil rights movement who was murdered in 1965. The film is, as many Spike Lee films are, audacious and bold in its execution of timely, heavy and significant themes. Watching Malcolm X after something such as A Patch of Blue makes you realise just how watered down a white man’s interpretation of the 1960s racial attitudes truly were, and gives a very raw interpretation of America and, more importantly, race in America. Selma is similarly powerful in its authenticity and exploration of the 1960s civil rights movement, this time tackling the 1965 march for voting rights led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama. Much like Malcolm X, the film gives a genuine recounting of the 1960s from an African-American perspective, nothing in the film feels watered down to any degree, nor does it feel like it’s neglecting the black core of the story, as films made by white filmmakers often did. The film is also notable for how it makes the 1960s-set story feel inherently relevant, with Peter Travers noting that the film “stings with relevance to the here and now” (Travers), this is how, ideally, a film reflecting on 1960s culture and society in regards to racial prejudice would not feel, but the fact that an authentic reflection on this time can be met with feelings of relevance is something that figures such as King and Malcolm X would want the audiences to be aware of, and directors like Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay understand the importance of channelling these figures of the 60s in their reflections of the time.
In conclusion, while the black civil rights movement can be seen as one of the largest and most culturally significant moments in 1960s America, this was not necessarily reflected in films of the era, due to the prevalence of the washed-down approach to racism, racial tensions and racial relations, originating from white filmmakers with no authentic insight to the movement. In the years and decades since the ‘60s, however, there has been a rise, albeit not a tremendously impressive one, in black filmmakers who have been able to grant audiences with more authentic portrayals of the time and offer valuable insights into 1960s American culture and society.
Berkeleyside. “Malcolm X Day celebrated at namesake school.” Berkeleyside (2010). <https://www.berkeleyside.com/2010/05/21/malcolm-x-day-celebrated-at-namesake-school>.
Chemerinsky, Erwin. Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. 6th. New York: Wolters Kluwer, 2019.
Davidson, Bill. Spencer Tracy, Tragic Idol. E. P. Dutton, 1987.
Travers, Peter. “Selma.” Rolling Stone (2014). <https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/selma-255595/>.
White, Jack E. “Show Business: Just Another Mississippi Whitewash.” Time (1989). <http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,956694,00.html>.