Confronting racism on screen

The tragic death of George Floyd has caused an eruption felt all around the world, including here in Sheffield. Something that has momentarily overshadowed the seemingly all-consuming nightmare of COVID-19 and lockdown. For those feeling curious about how issues like this have been tackled in cinema, particularly in Hollywood by progressive filmmakers eager to challenge contemporary racist ideology or simply to expose injustice to audiences, what follows is a selection of the best films that grapple with a difficult subject. All of these films were produced decades ago now, which only emphasises how long the struggle for equality and progress takes, and stresses how everyone has a duty to self-educate in some manner for the sake of all people.

Obviously this list represents only a very small sample of films exploring racial issues, and is focused on African-American struggles within their country, and all of which deal with some facet of the American legal system or law enforcement.

Odds Against Tomorrow 1959:
The full-stop in the original cycle of Hollywood’s film-noir output, it could be seen upon first glance as little more than a conventional thriller typical of its sub-genre’s conventions. Like all film-noir, it requires closer inspection. It’s lead character is played by Harry Belafonte, opposite Robert Ryan’s volatile, bigoted ex-cop. Reluctant partners in a bank heist that can than only end one way… badly. What makes this film a forgotten study of race-relations is how it shows both men living almost identical lives. Both exhibit moments of tenderness and a destructive dark side, as well as empathetic goals for themselves and their loved ones. The tension between the two gradually grows to a nefarious outcome. The core statement of this film, and a harrowing condemnation of racial violence comes in the last few seconds, and the last lines uttered before the end titles roll.

To Kill a Mockingbird 1962:
A film as beautiful, timeless and heartbreaking as the Pulitzer Prize-winner that spawned it. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, a morally principled lawyer who defends a local black man against a false charge of raping a white girl in Depression-era Alabama.

Shot in majestic black & white and told through the eyes of Finch’s adoring children, in particular his daughter Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird is a heart-wrenching story that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. For those who haven’t seen the film or read the Harper Lee novel, the outcome is crushingly obvious from the outset, but it serves as a stark depiction of American justice of the period, whilst still managing to create a sense of hope and shows the moral necessity of doing the right thing because it is right. The film went on to win Best Picture for its year, and in 2003 the American Film Archive ranked Atticus Finch as the greatest film hero of the 20th century. It’s easy to see why, as Peck touchingly portrays a town’s bastion of human decency.

In the Heat of the Night 1967:
Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier play two police officers investigating a homicide in Sparta, Mississippi. A town located in the arse-end of nowhere. One is a white, backward bigot and the other an educated African-American homicide expert from Pennsylvania. Based on the 1965 novel of the same name by John Ball, the story is simple, yet so brilliant in that same simplicity. The narrative allows for the disgusting racial injustices in the Southern States to be explored whilst challenging those same ignorant behaviours through the exchanges between Sheriff Gillespie and Virgil Tibbs. The two represent a great deal more than black man and white bigot. By 1967, events such as the Vietnam War, Kennedy’s Assassination and the Civil Rights Movement were dragging conservative America kicking and screaming into a different era. Gillespie represents the stubborn, outdated but in certain respects still honourable former-America. Tibbs represents college education, racial-equality and most significantly, the future. The real victory beyond solving the case, is the respect that Tibbs’ white contemporaries feel for him by the film’s end. Another Best Picture winner for its year of release.

Mississippi Burning 1988:
Quite possibly the hardest of this list to watch. Based on the real-life 1964 murder of three Civil Rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan, Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman are two FBI agents dispatched to investigate their disappearance. Dafoe although officially in charge, is sickened and totally unprepared for the savagery and uncontrolled bloodlust he encounters. It is then left to Hackman, a man who grew up in a neighbouring county, to guide the pair to justice by fighting the Klan with dirty and underhand if admittedly satisfying methods. Throughout the tense, and at times frightening course of the investigation, the treatment of African-Americans is shown to such horrific extents it’s almost impossible to make it through to the end without taking a break. The eulogy given three-quarters of the way through the picture is something that could shamefully be heard today; ‘I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men. I am sick and tired of the people of this country, who continue to allow these things to happen…’

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