Ann Hornaday has an interesting article in the Post today, albeit with some significant omissions, about Hollywood’s failure to produce a comprehensive “Civil Rights Epic”.

Indeed, of all the social, cultural and political touchstones of the baby boom generation — World War II, the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, feminism, gay rights, AIDS and all manner of political coverups — the civil rights movement has yet to be the subject of a pivotal, defining feature film.

If you’re like me, you said, “What about ‘X’?”. Hornaday gives ‘X’ it’s moment, omitting that it was the performance of Denzel Washington’s career, and that he was snubbed for an Oscar for playing a Civil Rights leader so he could get one a decade later for playing a drug dealing criminal who compares himself to King Kong.

So far, the closest thing audiences have to a definitive civil rights movie is “Malcolm X,” Spike Lee‘s brilliant biographical film starring Denzel Washington as the black-nationalist leader. But notwithstanding that film’s compelling portrait of one man’s extraordinary personal and political transformation, “Malcolm X” takes place largely outside the context of the mainstream civil rights movement, which at its height involved hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Hornaday’s identification of the Nation of Islam as occurring “outside the context of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement” illustrates the white privilege of perspective in history. What Hornaday means by “mainstream” is those aspects of the Movement that included white people. At the height of its power, the Nation of Islam’s ‘Muhammad Speaks’ newspaper was the most widely read black newspaper in the country.

Hornaday also omits the excellent ‘Boycott‘, which was an HBO film starring Jeffrey Wright as MLK and introduced it’s audience to Civil Rights figures like Bayard Rustin and Asa Philip Randolph, whose long careers in Civil Rights have been obscured in high school history classes by the martyrdom of Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman.

The story of Malcolm X is largely an exclusively black one. And the reason that Hollywood has failed to make a comprehensive epic about the Civil Rights movement is, despite what many Americans would like to believe, the story of the Civil Rights Movement is largely an exclusively black one. This is not to say that whites were not involved, but Hollywood, and by extension our understanding of American history, has over-emphasized the role of white activists in order to exonerate the rest of the country from its participation in, and tacit approval of, institutionalized racism.

Some people will remind me of Schwerner and Goodman. I don’t mean to minimize their efforts. My white Jewish father marched on Washington. My mother’s father taught school and sold chickens on the side in order to make enough money to move he, my uncle and my grandma out of segregated Tampa so his children could get a decent education. Looking at these two stories, Hollywood would choose to make a film about my father.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement is the story of African-American courage, dignity and suffering. Telling that story without spotlighting white heroism means engaging years of the willing participation of white Americans in institutional and cultural racism, rather than comforting a white audience with a white hero.

It’s not as if Hollywood hasn’t tried, albeit with mixed success. There was “Mississippi Burning” in 1989, followed several years later by “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Both dealt with real-life civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and, in the latter film, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers — who were murdered by white supremacists. And both engaged in a certain degree of revisionism, valorizing the white investigators of the crimes rather than emphasizing the heroic stories of their nominal subjects. Even more egregiously, there was “Forrest Gump,” which 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.

The Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin in 1964. It began in 1865. And the struggle for black equality from the end of the Civil War to the 1960s existed without the support of most white Americans. Perhaps the biggest lie perpetuated by Hollywood is the idea that most Americans actively opposed institutionalized and cultural racism. White Americans as a whole cannot take credit for their efforts any more than the Republican Party can take credit for those Americans who had the foresight to oppose the war in Iraq. Until Hollywood is comfortable telling black stories without white heroes, you won’t see the Civil Rights epic Hornaday is looking for.

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