Unformatted text preview: Views of Racism in Hollywood
As Malcolm X states in Spike Lee's movie of the same name, "The persecution of the black race has been going on for 400 years." Racism in America has been a problem for a long time and it wasn't until the 1960s that a strong push towards civil-rights was made. While sit-ins, protests, rallies, etc. put the public spotlight on the civil-rights movement, Hollywood also began to play a small part in the civil-rights push. With movies like "The Defiant Ones" and "A Raisin in the Sun," movies began to, according to Belton, "expose bigotry and racism" (333), although he also notes in the same sentence that the movies "did so without exposing their sources." While this is true, the movies of the era also had a starkly different moral standard than those of today. There was a different acceptance of vulgarity, violence, and sex than there is today. Much more is acceptable. Belton notes the 1966 film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" referring to Warner Bros. as "testing the waters." In this film, for the first time, shocking words like "goddamn," and "son of a bitch," and "bastard" were heard. The movie was given an R rating, where in today's standards, movies rated PG contain these words (Disney's "Remember the Titans" for example). Contemporary films by minorities are similar to those of the 60s since they expose bigotry and racism without offering clear solutions, but at the same time deal with them in a different and more realistic manner, due to the changing standard of what is appropriate for the screen. Belton states that Hollywood in the 60s: "Suggested that all would be well in the future. Mere acknowledgment of the problem meant that the problem was somehow solved." It is now the future that they were waiting for, and while on the surface it seems racism is significantly improved, Hollywood often shows us how racism is still very much alive in America. Movies like "American History X," where Edward Norton is the leader of the neo-Nazi party in his region. Set in the 1990s, this movie was a shocking look at how strong racism in America still is. This year's Academy Award winner for best picture was centered on racism towards not just African-Americans, but against all ethnicities. While the directors of these films, both white, address these issues, it is not the central theme in their filmmaking. When I think about filmmakers that deal with race, I turn to Spike Lee. The majority of Lee's films deal with African American culture--ranging from basketball to Malcolm X. With Spike Lee's first movie about racism in America, "Do the Right Thing" was a startling look that exposed the prejudices towards the African-American community, much like the race movies of the 60s. But just like the movies dealing with race from the 60s, Spike Lee offers no clear solution at the end of "Do the Right Thing." The final shot that viewers are left with are two quotes, one by pacifist Martin Luther King, and the other by the militant Malcolm X. Lee leaves the viewers on their own when deciding which solution, if any, they should agree with: either the peaceful, "pen is mightier than the sword" view of King, or the activist means that Malcolm X encourages. While some argue that the order that the quotes are shown (Malcolm X gets the last word) lean more heavily in one direction, I hold each in equal significance. If Lee chose to place the quotes side by side, the screen would have been cluttered and hard to read, making the choice to put them one after another a logistical choice rather than a moral one. In another of Spike Lee's films, he offers another unclear solution to dealing with racism. The brilliant (but long) "Malcolm X" traces the Muslim leader's tale from corruption, re-birth, and re-birth again. A film that took over twenty years to get the rights for, since it was the first film to every be allowed to be shot in the holy city of Mecca, "Malcolm X" is hailed as Lee's "great epic," and I believe it is. But once again, few solutions are offered. In the beginning of the film, there are flashbacks of Malcolm's own parents having their house burned down in the 20s by members of the Klu Klux Klan. The scene is very tragic--Lee focuses on the reaction of the young children during this scene, painting the KKK, if not hideous enough already, as even more heinous for being able to kill young children. Luckily for Spike Lee and the rest of history, the children and the whole family survived. This is one of the first dramatic scenes of racism we see in the film, and it also plays a prominent role in showing that there is no solution to the problem of racism, as almost forty years later, Malcolm's own house is burned to the ground. During this scene, more flashbacks to the previous arson are shown which Spike Lee shot in a very similar manner so viewers can clearly draw parallels between the acts of racism. The never-ending cycle of violence and racism doesn't stop. More than a solution to racism, Lee offers hope. Based on Malcolm's autobiography, Spike Lee meticulously and relentlessly shows the three main stages of his life: the first, when he was a pimp-drug addict who lived a life of pleasure and excess, the second, where he discovers the teachings of Islam and Elijah Muhammad, and finally when he travels to Mecca on a pilgrimage and is truly saved by Islam. In a business where book adaptations are rarely true to the original story due to mainly time constraints, Spike Lee spends three hours and twenty minutes telling Malcolm's inspirational story of a man's ability to change for the better, even after being influenced so much (brainwashed to some extent) by the biased views of Elijah Mohammad. More than anything else, Spike Lee chose to focus on the words that Malcolm spoke. A majority of the scenes were of his preaching and talking about how to better the world through Islamic teachings. Lee even included Malcolm's eulogy, delivered in the film by the same man who delivered it in real life. After the tragic assassination, the first words viewers hear are: "Here - at this final hour, in this quiet place - Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes." Just like the movies of the 60s, Malcolm X shows the wicked cycle of racism but offers few, if any, solutions. But Spike Lee does offer something. He offers hope for a brighter future by showing in the last scene, young children of all races standing up and proclaiming "I am Malcolm X!" Malcolm X's power came from his words, and Spike Lee used his words to give hope to the future of race relations in America by educating new generations of students. "A handful of non-Hollywood films, including documentaries and independently made features attempt to deal with many of these issues. Unfortunately, they never found wide distribution" (333). Belton frequently states how the movies dealing with race weren't widely screened, or largely unaccepted. This is one striking difference that I see in today's movies compared to those of the 60s: contemporary movies about race are widely viewed and popular. I attribute the modern day popularity to the incredibly graphic nature of the films. As I stated before, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was the first time audiences heard contemporary everyday words like "bastard," and that was in 1966. "American History X," which according to voters on www.imdb.com, is the 48th highest rated of all time (8.5 out of 10)--"American History X" uses the word "fuck" a reported 205 times, and includes one of the most talked about scenes of violence in movie history: when Edward Norton's character curbs an African American (curb- to make someone put their teeth against a curb, then kicking them in the back of the head, making their teeth fall out, among other hideous things). I've never heard the word "nigger" used so many times in a movie before I saw Malcolm X. These words and hate crimes have been going on as long as there has been racism, but Hollywood turned a blind eye to them. As Belton states: "Hollywood concerned itself with racism but did so on its own terms" (333). Audiences didn't see how bad the racism was; they knew it was there, but they didn't know how bad it was. Today's audiences know how bad it is because of how differently racism is portrayed. Because of new criteria about what is acceptable, violence, sex, and obscenity commonplace in all movies with a PG-13 rating or above. For me, seeing the horrible acts on screen rather than just hearing about them makes them much more emotional and severe, and hopefully that is how it is for the general public. If Hollywood still isn't offering many solutions, at least it is exposing more realistically the extent of the violent acts done by racists thanks to the pioneering works of directors like Spike Lee. And while I also believe that the rise in hip-hop music has contributed greatly to America's realization of racism, music is for another essay. Contemporary movies strive to be more realistic and emotional than their predecessors, which is why movies dealing with race are so different from those of the 60s. It would be nice to think that racism is beginning to end, but with the 2005 making of "Crash," a lot of Americans came to the startling realization that racism is still alive and well in all ethnicities, genders, and economic classes. But while racism is changing, Hollywood is also changing. In any terrible affliction, whether it is alcoholism, or racism, the first step of solving the problem is realizing that there is one. Hollywood has shown the problem of racism quite graphically in recent years, and while they give no coherent solution to the problem, movies like "Malcolm X," "Crash," and "American History X" give hope that there is the ability to change for the better. ...
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- Spring '06
- Malcolm X, Nation of Islam, Racism in the United States, Malcolm X. Lee