Top 10 American Films about Race & Prejudice
“Do you like baseball…do you, Anderson?”
“Yeah, I do. You know, it’s the only time when a black man can wave a stick at a white man and not start a riot.” – Mississippi Burning, 1988 (Directed by Alan Parker)
The Birth of Film: The Birth of a Nation
Hollywood has addressed the difficult and often destructive theme of race and prejudice since its early beginnings. The most iconic film of early silent cinema is D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”. It is one of the most lauded films of the period, and yet it clearly displayed an attitude toward white supremacy. It’s distorted historical view of the American Civil War shows contempt for the contributions and attitudes of the African-American people, justifying the sickening, evil actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Furious opposition from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) met the film on its release, and riots broke out in Boston and Philadelphia after its initial screenings. Naively, Griffith claimed he was not a racist, yet Ku Klux Klan membership rose steeply in the following years. It is saddening the Klan still uses the film as a promotional device to encourage new members.
And yet it is one of the most important films ever made. Not least, it encouraged feature films to prosper in America, while pioneering certain techniques such as the close-up, deep-focus, and the jump cut. It also features a colour sequence. Critics agree that despite its politics it is a milestone in cinema history.
Oscar Micheaux – the first African-American filmmaker
Oscar Micheaux is considered the first African-American film director to gain notoriety in America. He made many films between 1919 and his death in 1951, which dealt with the struggle against discrimination faced by the African-American community.
He was born in Illinois in 1884 but spent most of his youth in Kansas. His upbringing was informed by the experiences of his parents, both of whom had been former slaves. He took to writing at an early age and wanted to be educator and pioneer. When the motion picture industry began to grow in popularity he adapted one of his books into a film. The film was “The Homesteader” and starred African-American actress Evelyn Preer.
The amount of work he accomplished in both publishing and film was unprecedented. As an independent motion picture producer he rarely received financial backing and had to tour his own film around theatres, often having to use his own projector in make-shift auditoriums. He was however the first African-American filmmaker to have a film in a ‘white’ theatre. The Producers Guild of America said he was “the most prolific black – if not most prolific independent – filmmaker in American cinema.”
His best work is 1925’s “Body and Soul” and 1929’s “Wages Of Sin”. However, his 1919 film “Within Our Gates” is also notable as it was Micheaux’s response to Griffith’s “A Birth of a Nation”.
They call me Mr. Tibbs
We must whiz forward a few years to get to the crux of our top 10 list: 1967 to be exact, three years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. A Miami-born actor named Sidney Poitier agrees to do a film based on the 1965 novel by John Ball about an African-American police detective investigating a murder in a widely racist Mississippi town. However, Poitier, who had previously won a Best Actor Oscar in 1963 (the first African-American to do so), had a problem with the script. In one of the pivotal moments in the film, a white man slaps Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs. Tibbs fails to react in the original script, something that made Poitier uncomfortable. Agreeing to make the film only if Tibbs reacts by slapping the man back and therefore displaying an equality of power, the ball was in director Norman Jewison’s court. He agreed, and the scene became one of the most memorable of the movie. The film we’re talking about is of course “In The Heat Of The Night”.
The scene is important for several reasons. Its conclusion highlights Tibbs’ own prejudices, something he begins to regret. It also shows that a divide, which had long stood between white and black America (a divide that continued to stand despite the Civil Right Act in the 1960s), was beginning to crack. Tibbs is the outsider (literally and metaphorically), he’s the unknown equation, the bottom end of the food chain, the ‘black man’. When he slaps the white, upper-class businessman Eric Endicott, and receives no retribution from Endicott or police chief Gillespie, he has taken charge of the situation. He has risen above the constraints assumed by Endicott’s inherent racism. Importantly, it was the first time mainstream audiences had seen such a reaction from a black man to a white man.
As Tibbs leaves Endicott’s house, telling the police chief that he’s going to ‘bring the fat cat down’ and get him for the murder, Gillespie says: “You’re just like the rest of us, ain’t ya?” It’s the beginning of these two disparate characters finding something in common.
In a later scene at Gillespie’s house the two men talk about loneliness which ends with Gillespie stamping his authority, as he does throughout the movie, by attempting to belittle Tibbs’ obvious academic superiority. Gillespie is constantly reminded of his deep-south roots, albeit the superficial, ignorant ones, that instruct him to be wary of the black man. But, in the scene where he invites Tibbs into his home, he tells him that no one ever comes there. Tibbs could very well be the first visitor the police chief has had in years – a visitor, who just happens to be black. By the end of the movie, Gillespie hints at a new found friendship with Virgil Tibbs. Importantly, if this relationship isn’t based on friendship, it is, without any doubt, founded on mutual respect. This is the film’s greatest attribute.
Between the War and the Mockingbird
As early as the 1940s, Hollywood realised that films about race and prejudice could not only be popular amongst American audiences but also form an important artistic stance in the fast-changing cultural climate. Coincidentally, it was Gregory Peck (who would later become an integral part of film history playing Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird”) who appeared in Fox’s highest grossing movie of 1947 “Gentlemen’s Agreement”. Peck plays Philip Green, an undercover journalist posing as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism in upper-class New York. The film won several awards including three Oscars, one for Best Film.
The success of the film opened the door for others dealing with racial prejudice, class, and a multi-cultural society. Sidney Poitier would make his screen debut in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film noir “No Way Out” playing a doctor faced with the ignorant taunts of an uneducated working class. It was one of the first instances where a black actor played the lead in a Hollywood film. Other examples throughout the 50s include James Dean’s “Giant” that featured racism against Mexican Americans, and Samuel Fuller’s “The Crimson Kimono” which saw actor James Shigeta, an American-born actor of Japanese ancestry, attempting to solve a murder case in the Japanese quarter of Los Angeles. The film sees several characters in a film noir setting having to deal with various issues of race including a blossoming romance between Shigeta’s Japanese cop and American girl Victoria Shaw.
Yet Hollywood has favoured casting its gaze towards the African-American struggle, a reaction, it could be argued, to the contempt held against the slave trade. Another reason could be the rising star that was Sidney Poitier. 1958 saw Poitier star in Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones”, about two escaped convicts (Poitier and Tony Curtis) shackled together, having to cooperate in order to survive. Like “In The Heat Of The Night”, there are two characters – one white, one black – who have to form a bond. Their prejudices towards each other begin to break down as they learn more about one another. The film won two Oscars.
In 1961, Poitier took on another role, this time in Daniel Petrie’s “A Raisin In The Sun”. The film is important because it is based on the original theatre play by Lorraine Hansberry, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie version. The play was the first to be written by a black woman to debut on Broadway, as well as the first to be directed by a black director (Lloyd Richards). It deals with one family’s experiences living in Chicago’s South Side, bringing together themes of poverty and class, as well as race and identity. In the film Poitier plays Walter Lee Younger, an idealistic limousine driver, who dreams of wealth and prosperity. The film, arriving both on stage and in film theatres before the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is considered one of the most significant of its type. It is ground-breaking in its depiction of race relations and one of the first mainstream movies to feature an almost entirely African-American cast.
Before the Civil Rights Act
By 1962 pressure was growing on the government to end segregation, introduce fair voting practices, and to instigate laws protecting the civil rights of African-American people. At the time it was common in the southern states to see African-American prisoners wrongly tried and convicted, unfairly judged in a court of law, and given none of the protection enjoyed by white Americans in similar situations. This was the problem faced by white attorney Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s film “To Kill A Mockingbird”. Finch, played brilliantly by Gregory Peck, is a strong-minded individual who sees right from wrong in a single colour. He makes it his mission to protect the rights of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. However, he is constantly confronted by the prejudices of the small town and the failings of a judicial system still overrun by racism.
The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three. Gregory Peck won for Best Actor.
After the Civil Rights Act and Blaxploitation
In the period after the Civil Rights Act Hollywood continued to make social commentary movies that looked at the African-American position within society. The Act itself didn’t immediately change the way films were made, or alter their view on race and prejudice. Much like policing of the new equalities made law by the Civil Rights Act change was slow.
Like “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “The Defiant Ones”, and “The Crimson Kimono” in the late 50s and early 60s, race was still an issue treated as disparate social groups struggling to live together. This continued in 1964 with Carl Lerner’s little seen “Black Like Me”, about a white American journalist who adopts ‘blackface’ and travels around racially segregated southern states in order to investigate the difficulties facing African-American people. The film was based on John Howard Griffin’s book which highlight the fact social change was a slow process and still very much in its infancy.
In 1967, Sidney Poitier released two films, one of which was of course “In The Heat Of The Night”. The other was Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”, a film that concerned itself with the much-taboo subject of interracial relationships. I’m reminded of Atticus Finch’s comment to the jury in “To Kill A Mockingbird” when he says, “It was guilt that motivated her”, alluding to a white woman’s sexual attraction to a black man. “She has committed no crime. She has merely broken a rigid and time-honoured code of our society. A code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst, as unfit to live with,” he says.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” deals with the proposed marriage between a black doctor (Poitier) and his white fiancée (Katherine Houghton). Poitier’s doctor is conceived as idealistically perfect so the only problem with the relationship would have to be based on race. The film was controversial because its theme was still very taboo (highlighted in the film by the prejudice seen by both black and white families), and interracial marriage was still illegal in seventeen American states until the summer of 1967.
In Poitier’s other film of 1967, “In The Heat Of The Night”, he has to deal with the prejudice of a small town while investigating the murder of an upper-class businessman. The film was, as discussed, ground-breaking and massively influential, but in addition, sought to remove itself from the melodrama of racial-tension and social-commentary movies. “In The Heat Of The Night” was a slow-burning mystery-thriller which worked perfectly in representing race and prejudice under the prescribed conventions of its genre. The sequel, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” (released in 1970), was even more in debt to generic convention. It was the popularity of these movies, the iconic depiction of African-American power, and the star-quality of Poitier, that saw a vast number of films appear in the 1970s for an emerging black audience.
These films featured a largely black cast, made by black writers and directors. They were made for young, urbanised African-American audiences who were experiencing unprecedented freedoms yet still dealing with an unsettled multicultural climate. Many of the films were quickly made on low-budgets, meaning dozens appeared each year. Examples include Gordon Parks’ “Shaft” in 1971, “Black Mama, White Mama” in 1972 (which was a loose re-imagining of “The Defiant Ones”), “Coffy” in 1973 (one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films), and “Black Shampoo” in 1975 (which basically copied Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo”). Pam Grier, who would later star in Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”, became the pin-up girl of black-orientated film in the 1970s, appearing in some of the better features to appear during the decade including “Coffy”, “Black Mama, White Mama”, “Foxy Brown”, “Sheba, Baby”, and “Mandingo”.
However, many of the films were trashy at best, throwaway stories that were exploitative in nature. Thus came the term ‘Blaxploitation’. The films didn’t concern themselves with race issues as had been seen in the 1960s, favouring a pastiche of stereotypes. They were criticised by the NAACP, and by some quarters for appealing only to drug-dealers and pimps. This saw the genre diminish as the decade drew to a close.
Outside of the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Hollywood was still making more serious work about race relations in America. Director Martin Ritt released two movies at the beginning of the decade – “The Great White Hope” and “Sounder” – while liberal-minded filmmaker Hal Ashby made “The Landlord”.
Retrospectives and the true story
By the time blaxploitation was largely a thing of the past and the decadent 1980s had come into full bloom, Hollywood was in retrospective mood. Some of the movies concerning racial issues looked back at the African-American struggle during the early 1900s, while others brought to the silver screen true stories of real lives and their impact on society.
The retrospective film proved popular with audiences both as education and catharsis. Steven Spielberg made the most well known when he released “The Color Purple” in 1985. It tells the story of African-American girl Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) in the early 1900s who is faced with racism, sexism, and poverty. Goldberg, in her finest dramatic film performance, was deservedly nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win. Todd Haynes made another well-received retrospective in 2002 with the film “Far From Heaven”. Set in the 1950s, it sees Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whitaker coming to terms with her husband’s homosexuality, and her burgeoning relationship with Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). The film mixes issues of race, class, and sexuality in the style of Douglas Sirk.
The true-life stories, some of which elaborate on the actual events more than others, proved a cathartic experience for audiences. Many of these true tales were critical and commercial successes – John Avildsen’s “Lean On Me” (1989), Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992), Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts Of Mississippi” (1996), Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” (1999), George Tillman Jr.’s “Men Of Honor” (2000), and Michael Mann’s “Ali” (2001).
John Irvin’s 1987 Vietnam war film “Hamburger Hill” differed from other cinematic depictions of the war by firstly trying to justify the conflict, and secondly, portraying racial tensions and subsequent friendships between black and white soldiers. Although less successful than the likes of “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon”, it had a unique subtext, and benefited from some brilliantly photographed and choreographed battle sequences.
One of the best fact-based movies is Boaz Yakin’s “Remember The Titans” released in 2000. Although it does embellish on the facts, and concludes in predictable sports-movie fashion, it features very strong performances from Denzel Washington, Will Patton, and young stars Ryan Hurst and Wood Harris. It focuses on newly desegregated school T.C. Williams during the 1971 high school football season. The football team, now made up of white and black players, try to integrate and play as a team on their way to the state finals.
The best true-story drama, however, is “Mississippi Burning”, a 1988 film by Alan Parker. Three civil rights activists have been murdered in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan try to cover up the murders but a huge FBI investigation uncovers the truth. Although criticised for its depiction of the actual events, especially in its pro-FBI stance and the rather passive African-American community featured in the film, it is a wonderfully suspenseful police-thriller with powerhouse performances from Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe.
I remember seeing it for the first time when I was fourteen years old. We watched it in school as part of a course on representation in the media. The film blew me away. It opened my eyes to a piece of history I was at the time completely ignorant of. Even though the story dramatises the facts, it is an important reminder to a wide, mainstream audience, that the problem of race and prejudice exists and cannot be hidden away. It depicts the civil rights movement as an idealistic struggle fought by innocent yet passionate young men and women. It also shows the Ku Klux Klan, quite rightly, as a dangerous, racist, and morally bankrupt organisation that should be shunned or, even better, extinguished. And, it highlights a period in American history before all men were seen as equal. We see the difficulties and fear running rampant in southern black communities, and as a consequence, the importance of the ensuing Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The passing of the Acts was the result of a hard fought battle. A battle fought by millions. Three of whom – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – died fighting the cause. The film memorialises their selfless sacrifice and the bloody struggle towards equality.
Modern Society and the African-American auteur
It was towards the end of the decadent 1980s and beginning of the 1990s that two African-American writer-directors emerged as the new voice of the black experience in modern society. One, Spike Lee, born prior to the Civil Rights Act, and the other, John Singleton, born just afterward, breathed new life and a fresh perspective on race relations in modern America.
Both filmmakers were products of the film school system. Lee studied film at New York University, while Singleton studied at the University of Southern California. The two films that defined their careers are also their best work. In 1989, Lee released inner-city racial conflict movie “Do The Right Thing”, and two years later, Singleton made coming-of-age drama “Boyz n The Hood”.
TOP 10 AMERICAN FILMS ABOUT RACE AND PREJUDICE
10. Hamburger Hill (Irvin, 1987) – IMDB
“Hamburger Hill” is John Irvin’s bloody recreation of the U.S. Army’s attempt to occupy ‘Hill 937’, a North Vietnamese strongpoint, during the Vietnam war. The film is violent and unforgiving, and benefits from Irvin’s documentary background. The film is the only American Vietnam War film that looks at race and prejudice issues head on.
9. Remember The Titans (Yakin, 2000) – IMDB
A touching and emotional American Football movie about newly integrated T.C. Williams High School and their African-American head coach Herman Boone. The film fictionalises events to heighten drama but its message is a strong and poignant one. It is also noteworthy for the superb performances of its cast, especially Denzel Washington.
8. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967) – IMDB
Groundbreaking at the time, this story of interracial marriage arrived when such a thing was still illegal in much of America. Importantly, the film looks at racism from several points of view. It won two Academy Awards, and featured strong performances from its stellar cast.
7. American History X (Kaye, 1998) – IMDB
Hard-hitting, ultra-violent, and rather nasty, Tony Kaye’s 1998 film is a powerful and disturbing depiction of modern day racism in Los Angeles. Blessed with a powerhouse performance from Edward Norton, the film is notable for the relationship between his reformed racist and his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) who becomes heavily influenced by his brothers actions.
6. Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989) – IMDB
“Do The Right Thing” firmly marked Spike Lee as a powerful and talented African-American director, writer, and performer. The ensemble film looks at simmering racial tensions in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. The beauty of the film is in its strong characterisations that play out over a single day. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking film.
5. Boyz n the Hood (Singleton, 1991) – IMDB
John Singleton was the next African-American filmmaker to make his mark in Hollywood. “Boyz N the Hood” examines life growing up in the African-American communities of southern Los Angeles. Following Tre from childhood to adulthood, played as an adult by Cuba Gooding Jr., Singleton looks at how violent crime and gang culture effects the lives of those living in the ‘hood’.
4. A Raisin In The Sun (Petrie, 1961) – IMDB
Based on the play written by African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin In The Sun” was one of the most forward-thinking films of the time. She based the story on her family’s experiences battling racially segregated housing laws in Chicago. Sidney Poitier plays the father-figure Walter Lee Younger.
3. Mississippi Burning (Parker, 1988) – IMDB
Loosely based on the real-life FBI investigation into the deaths of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, Alan Parker’s film is a brutal and thought-provoking crime thriller. Although it fictionalises events for dramatic effect, it is still an important movie about a volatile period in American history. Parker keeps the tension and pace up, and he’s ably supported by superb turns from Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman.
2. In The Heat Of The Night (Jewison, 1967) – IMDB
Norman Jewison’s “In The Heat of the Night” arrived at an important time in American history. Three years after the Civil Rights Act and two years after the Voting Rights Act, the film displayed the changes taking place in society. With its story of a Philadelphia cop trying to solve a murder in Mississippi, Jewison is able to example the north/south divide, metaphorically and physically exposing the ills present in a country still coming to terms with desegregation. Sidney Poitier is the excellent Virgil Tibbs, and the line “They call Mr Tibbs” will live on forever in the annals of film history.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962) – IMDB
“To Kill a Mockingbird” doesn’t address racism as directly as some of the films on this list. What is does do is to seek out how we perceive people, especially from a position of childhood innocence. The beauty of Robert Mulligan’s film, based on the novel by Harper Lee, is how the story is told from the point of view of six-year old Scout (Mary Badham). Her small, insular world view is juxtaposed by how open and all-encompassing it is to that tiny world. There’s no politics involved, there’s no appreciation of history; she hasn’t had time to be pressured into a single way of thinking. Empowered by her father’s good will, she’s only interested in having adventures with her brother and their friend. It’s this innocence that is pivotal to film’s depiction of race and prejudice. She sees her father’s defence of a black man wrongly accused of murder as one man helping another in need. She has no feeling towards, or even understands, that the black man is fighting an ingrained racism that cannot be overcome. In another example of prejudice she fails to discriminate against the strange man across the street, who the adults claim is a violent psychopath.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is not only one of the best films about prejudice and discrimination, it is one of the best films about childhood and friendship. Gregory Peck brings it all together as Scout’s father, and Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, and John Megna wonderfully play the children. Touching, poignant, and uplifting are just some of the words to describe this masterpiece.
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