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The Black Civil Rights Movement – Reflected on Film

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.

So how was the black civil rights movement reflected on film?

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.

Jack E. White, one of the few critics to highlight the inauthenticity of white filmmakers’ approach to films about race.

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.

A YouTube video comparing Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ with real world footage.

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.

Bibliography

Berkeleyside. “Malcolm X Day celebrated at namesake school.” Berkeleyside (2010). <https://www.berkeleyside.com/2010/05/21/malcolm-x-day-celebrated-at-namesake-school&gt;.

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/&gt;.

White, Jack E. “Show Business: Just Another Mississippi Whitewash.” Time (1989). <http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,956694,00.html&gt;.

The Internet’s Own Boy – Crafting the Face of a Message

Aaron Swartz was arrested in 2011 after he was discovered to have downloaded millions of JSTOR’s academic articles using his MIT guest account. Though he didn’t execute his plan, it was set in place 3 years earlier, when he published a document titled ‘The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’, in which he stated “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves … We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.” Swartz’s actions were not driven from a place of selfishness or greed, but rather trying to combat this.

In Brian Knappenberger’s 2014 documentary, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, the director delves into the life of the man who tried to change the world – the man who then took his life upon being faced with decades of jailtime in 2013. The film is expository but also deeply personal, being narrated by Swartz’s mother, brothers and girlfriends. It also uses archival footage of Swartz as a child at the beginning of the film, and footage of him at various points in his life throughout the documentary – establishing Swartz as an empathetic, and sympathetic, figure. While Poitras’ documentary Citizenfour was an exploration of the concepts of privacy, while also looking at Snowden – this documentary is a celebration of Swartz, while also looking at what he believed in and sought to accomplish.

Aaron Swartz at a young age, as seen in ‘Internet’s Own Boy’

Swartz held a belief that education was a right that all people had, and something that should never be commercialised or used for profit. The documentary compliments footage of his family discussing this with talks and presentations Swartz did on the subject, where he specifically slates companies who try to make profit on academic journals. In this way, the film is inherently political; even more than my previously covered Knappenberger film, We Are Legion. That film delved into Anonymous’ various actions, but Internet’s Own Boy feels like a film keen to make a statement through Swartz, showing that the treatment on him was unnecessarily harsh and highlighted the greed and avaricious nature of a capitalist society. Zizi Papacharissi begged the question that “even if online information is available to all, how easy is it to access?”, which echoes the sentiment of Swartz’s quest – the information is available, but due to its pay to read nature, it is not easy to access and, therefore, closes off a large amount of people from the possibility of gaining an education.

An example of the legacy Swartz left behind

An effective method Knappenberger uses is layering the political messages and undertones within the ways the various interviewees speak of Aaron. Never do they condemn his actions or suggest he should have even considered the legal ramifications of them, but rather say it was always in his nature to want to teach and to want to let other people learn; his brothers told stories about Aaron coming home from school and trying to teach them complex calculus and algebra despite them being much younger. These types of monologues and stories help make the film more emotional, but also make its political message more sympathetic and easier to support. The film’s broad concerns about education and everyone’s right to schooling in some capacity is one that is consistently echoed through the questions Knappenberger asks his subjects, and the stories he encourages them to tell – in this way, the director makes Swartz, an established figure of empathy and sympathy within the documentary, the face of his political message, making it easier to win over the audience.

WORKS CITED

We Are Legion – How an Online Community Spurred On Real World Action

 “The thing about anon[ymous] is that you’re alone until you get to 4chan”, this line is spoken by a participating member of Anonymous in the documentary We Are Legion, directed by Brian Knappenberger. The documentary acts as an exploration of Anonymous; its origins, its actions and its members. Initially beginning as just a group of people with similar senses of humour and an interest in things such as computer coding, what has come of the group is something much larger. Though the documentary explores a few key moments in Anonymous’ history, I think focusing on one of these moments would be beneficial for this post.

Project Chanology refers to Anonymous’ conflict with the Church of Scientology – what began with a leaked video of Tom Cruise extolling the wonders of Scientology led to a huge protest against what it stood for. The leaked video was taken down due to copyright claims from the church, and with this act, Anonymous’ animosity was born. On 4chan, the home of several chat groups and forums for the members of the group, their attack plans were organised and orchestrated. This information is relayed to the audience in an expository fashion, the director employs heavy usage of talking heads coupled with archival footage; giving the documentary an informative and formal feel.

Project Chanology Protests

In Lina Dencik and Oliver Leistert’s In Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation, they note that “near-instant communication amongst dispersed communities allows for a great number of organizational tasks to be more easily achieved” and this was absolutely the case with Project Chanology – throughout various countries and parts of America, organised attacks on the Church of Scientology’s websites and forums were launched, crashing most of the sites and most likely sending their IT departments into meltdown within hours, even causing the Scientology’s main website to move to a new web-based protection service.

An interesting facet of the documentary is its commitment to letting the members of the community speak as they wish to. The interviewees don’t shy away from speaking of the “luls” and “rick-rolls”, nor do they censor their language both in terms of profanity and political correctness. It instead presents itself as a true-to-life retelling of what happened. Instead of shying away from the dated stereotype of the basement-dwelling virgin, the members of the group discuss how these protest movements changed this and let a lot of the members develop healthy and thriving relationships.

One of the documentary’s subjects, a former member of Anonymous

As their online attacks were being countered more and more, Anonymous decided it would take their protest into the real world, picketing outside of the premises of various Scientology buildings throughout the world to great effect. Thousands turned out to the protests, in what can only be seen as a prime example of how hacktivism and online action can translate into real world action. Without the base online community of anonymous, a protest of this magnitude, taking place in various countries, against the Church of Scientology would not have been easily achieved. Dencik and Leistert noted that these new online methods can pave the path for greater organisation in protest, and this was absolutely the case with Project Chanology.

Works cited

  • Dencik, Lina and Oliver Leistert. “Introduction”. In Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.
  • Knappenberger, Brian. We Are Legion. US, 2012.

Citizenfour – An exploration of privacy through an informal eye

Zygmunt Bauman once said, “Perhaps we just consent to the loss of privacy as a reasonable price for the wonders offered in exchange” – the sentiment of this quote has stood the test of time as our modern world continues to develop new, innovative ways to keep tabs on the citizens. In Laura Poitras’ 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, we citizens get a rare look behind the curtain into how we are being watched, followed and tracked through interviews with Edward Snowden, and expository voice over detailing what Snowden accomplished.

Snowden, as seen in Citizenfour (2014)

Citizenfour is a truly unique documentary, through its approach to the subject. The idea of pulling back the curtain on one of the most publicised whistleblowers of modern times is enough to draw attention to your documentary, but the fact that this documentary takes place in real time – as the information is leaking – hands the film a feeling of urgency and chaotic rush. It wasn’t made as a hindsight-infused retelling of what was done, it was a real-time look at the man giving the information, and his own life, away, and the anxieties, worries and confusion that came along with both, as well as offering explanation into what exactly was uncovered. One of its most standout qualities is that the film doesn’t feel inherently cinematic. Most of the frames are just static, tripod-mounted shots of people talking, sometimes not even fully in focus. There’s no flashy cinematography or sound design, but its simplistic approach adds to the nuance of the film’s informality – it doesn’t speak to its viewer like a lecturer, but rather as a friend detailing what’s happening and what will happen, much like how Snowden took a calmer, easygoing approach to talking with the journalists.

The film’s informal approach helps to ground the story, but also helps to communicate its themes in a rational, calm manner. It hearkens back to Bauman’s quote, and begs the question why do we choose to accept it? Edward Snowden, talking with Glenn Greenwald, said “The greatest fear I have regarding the outcome is that nothing will change”, he knew that he wasn’t personally starting the revolution, but rather he was offering a spark that would allow the fire to rise, hoping someone else, whether it be a superior within the NSA, or protesters forcing change out of sheer will, would take what he had done and achieve a change from it for the good. However, as we learn more and more each day, nothing is changing and we are still being watched just as much as we were when Citizenfour was released.

An extract from Citizenfour published on The Guardian

In a separate article, Bauman stated “Occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy and individual autonomy … find little if any repercussion in the public agenda, in media programming, and first and foremost in popular attention.” Unfortunately, as intriguing and informative as a film such as Citizenfour is, it ultimately falls into Bauman’s description of occasional warnings of the terminal dangers to privacy, most people who have watched the film have continued on using social media and other websites. The irony of social media pages dedicated to Snowden appears to be lost on the creators, who feed into the fears the man had about coming out with this information.

Works cited

  • Poitras, Laura. Citizenfour. US, 2014.