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10 Popular Film/TV Examinations of Racial Issues

Must everything be about race? Technically, no, but let’s face it: Racial issues linger. Here are 10 films (and a TV show) that help examine race.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Set in early 1930s Alabama, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a fictional depiction of the lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and his kids, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford). When Finch defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman (Collin Wilcox). What ensues is a contentious trial which nearly results in mob rule and tragedy. In fact, it threatens to turn the whole town against the Finch family. While “To Kill a Mockingbird” doesn’t fully depict the brutal nature of racism, it definitely hints at it, and its heart is most certainly in the right place. This simple film deals with a lot of complex themes, making it abundantly clear that prejudices ultimately jeopardizes all involved.

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is often interpreted as exploring racial dynamics, as the film’s main protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), is a black man. However, quite interestingly, the film wasn’t originally intended that way. According to Romero, Jones got the part simply because he was the best actor, and he “deliberately didn’t change the script when Duane agreed to play the role.” It was sheer coincidence that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination happened, which added a timely racial overtone to the whole thing.

Romero’s followup, “Dawn of the Dead,” did far more to specifically address racial issues, particularly through the racist National Guardsman called “Wooley” (James A. Baffico). Though these scenes don’t dominate the film thematically, they show how the world was chaotic even before zombies arrived. They also show that racial hatred doesn’t have an intellectual leg to stand on, as it’s ultimately going to become about brutal violence. These racial themes at least subtly augment the rest of the film, which is largely about superficial consumer culture. The main characters literally assume the mall can save them, but reality has other plans. The film stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger and Gaylen Ross.

3. In Living Color (1990–1994)

Though it’s often overlooked today, “In Living Color” was one of the biggest comedy shows, helping to launch both the Wayans brothers and Jim Carrey. A key its success was its unflinching and frequently hilarious ways of addressing racial issues. While it would be utterly ripped apart for political incorrectness now, it gave us great characters like Homey D. Clown (Damom Wayans), Benita Buttrell (Kim Wayans), Calhoun Tubbs (David Alan Grier), Anton Jackson (Damon Wayans), the Dysfunctional Home Show, Vera de Milo (Jim Carrey), The Buttmans, and so on. Fortunately, it’s too late now to bring the hammer down on this show too hard. Its impressive legacy has already been established!  It did face censorship issues in its day, but a lot of things still squeaked by the censors.  Thank goodness for that.

4. The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” is crazy. It’s a bizarre story about Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) clashing with a crazed family of wealthy landlords, the Robesons — who call themselves Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy (Everett McGill). As Fool tries to escape their expansive, prison-like mansion, he gets help from their supposed daughter (A. J. Langer), and Roach (Sean Whalen), who escaped from them and somehow lives in their walls.

You might ask, “Okay, but what does this have to do with race?” Well, almost every aspect of this film is about class and racial division, and how the pursuit of wealth, power and control easily feeds from it. Craven himself noted that the Robesons’ house represents “the whole society of the United States.” While not everyone appreciates “The People Under the Stairs,” Craven’s ability to blend horror, humor and biting social commentary so seamlessly makes it a memorable (if not quintessential) ’90s horror film. The film also helped launch Ving Rhames’ career (Coincidentally, Rhames is in the next film listed here, too, and also in the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”).

5. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Photo credit: Miramax, A Band Apart, Jersey Films

Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” is a hugely influential film, and one of the first for which he was criticized along racial lines. Particularly, he was criticized for using what we’ll politely call the “n-word.” Todd Boyd, USC School of Cinematic Arts Professor, called the word “Tarantino’s mantra,” adding that “The recurrent use of the N-word has the ability to signify the ultimate level of hipness for white males who historically have used their perception of black masculinity as the embodiment of cool.”

However, its context in this film (and others) is always at least semi-debatable. In fact, what’s striking about “Pulp Fiction” is that, despite the presence of the offending word, the characters are depicted as somewhat getting along. For example, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) seem to like each other, with no significant racial tension. In fact, even Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) end up letting bygones be bygones, after Butch saves him from a bizarre and tragic event. One can debate the symbolism of those events, of course, but the main point is that these characters ultimately look past their superficial differences rather than dwell on them. Isn’t that what counts the most?

6. A Time to Kill (1996)

On the surface, Joel Schumacher’s “A Time to Kill” is a fairly straightforward film adaptation of the John Grisham novel. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Carl Lee Hailey, attacks and kills two white racists (played by Nicky Katt and Doug Hutchison) who had raped and beaten his daughter (Rae’Ven Larrymore Kelly). While the film itself regards it as almost self-defense, not everyone saw it that way. Anthony Puccinelli lamented: “A Time to Kill argues for vigilantism but disguises its message by making the vigilante black, allowing viewers to think their blood lust and thirst for revenge is actually empathy for the oppressed.” There may be a slight problem with this assessment, though, in that the film’s scenario is at least semi-plausible. Puccinelli even doubts that the Klan would ever target white people (as happens in the film to Hailey’s laweyer, played by Matthew McConaughey).

However, historically even white people could face violence, either along racial lines or for other reasons.  For example, if we go back to the 1800s, virtually anyone might have been lynched if accused of cattle thievery (apparently one of the ultimate crimes back then). Then, of course, there’s the 1891 mass lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans, Louisiana. While Italians are considered white people nowadays, they basically were not back then.  With that kind of history, it seems no one’s entirely safe from prejudicial violence. So Puccinelli’s critique should be taken with a grain of salt.

At the end of the day, “A Time to Kill” may offend some who see it as justifying vigilantism, but a more measured approach would be to regard it simply as food for thought. It presents issues which are debatable, and which are never 100% settled. Ironically, despite his own depiction of controversial violence, John Grisham once argued for suing Oliver Stone over the film “Natural Born Killers,” which Grisham blamed for driving people to violence.  Grisham said: “The notion of holding film makers and studios legally responsible for their products has always been met with guffaws from the industry.  But the laughing will soon stop. It will take only one large verdict against the likes of Oliver Stone and his production company and then the party will be over.”

7. American History X (1998)

Photo credit: New Line Cinema

Tony Kaye’s “American History X” is a rather unflinching (albeit fictional) look at a white supremacist, Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton), who is trying to change his life around. Of course, his past relationships with white supremacists get in his way, and end up potentially threatening his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) and his mother Doris (Beverly D’Angelo). The film alternates between Derek’s past and the present, so we get a view of his complex initial transformation to a neo-Nazi, and then his attempts to leave that life behind.

A key moment is the infamous “curb stomp” scene, which makes the film border on horror. While “American History X” is frequently murky and degrading, that only adds to its basic sense of realism. Norton didn’t win an Academy Award, but he at least got nominated for Best Actor. Other key performances are by Ethan Suplee, Fairuza Balk, Avery Brooks, Elliott Gould and Stacy Keach.

8. Crash (2004)

Paul Haggis’ “Crash” won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Picture, but it was not without its detractors. For starters, it won against “Brokeback Mountain,” which annoyed some critics. Some also thought it mischaracterized racism. For example, Critic Hsuan L. Hsu says “‘Crash’ normalizes historically sedimented inequalities by privatizing race and substituting interpersonal ethics for various forms of identity politics.” Of course, it’s doubtful that racism is always a systemic thing, especially in light of occasional social progress beyond it. Quite clearly, some people are less prejudiced (or at least less violent) than others. Nevertheless, the film does seem to veer away from historical angles, making it seem like racism comes out of nowhere. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

That aside, “Crash” is a worthwhile film, with good-to-great performances by Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, and even Brendan Fraser (known mostly for playing goofball characters). While not perfectly examined, the issues addressed in the film allow for complexity. Some of the characters are pretty immoral and obnoxious, but “Crash” also presents them as potentially redeemable, which is something many films are hesitant to do in an age of moral outrage and absolutism. In other words, “Crash” tries to do what a lot of great art does: It makes us question the world around us and ourselves. That no one in this film is purely good or evil is commendable in its own right.

9. Ray (2004)

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Quite simply, Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” is one of the greatest musical biopics of all time. Jamie Foxx is incredible as rhythm and blues musician Ray Charles, seeming to almost literally channel the man’s spirit through the run of the film. Like most bopics, one could accuse “Ray” of focusing too much on the dramatic elements of Ray Charles’ life. Nevertheless, we get to see some of the struggles and triumphs the man faced, even aside from his famous blindness. Regarding racial segregation, there’s murkiness between this film’s depiction of Charles and what happened in reality.

While Charles did refuse to play in segregated venues, he never actually faced a lifetime ban from performing in Georgia. While all biographical films bend the truth here and there, it can be bothersome to people who want movies to accurately reflect history. Nevertheless, “Ray” is still basically cinematic gold, and this little factual setback hardly subtracts major points.

10. Get Out (2017)

Although it’s highly praised by critics, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is nevertheless a silly and strange movie. While it obviously deals with racial issues, it is nevertheless a fictional horror film. Perhaps its strongest point is its examination of cultural hypnosis. The Armitage family represents pop culture propping up accomplished black people as proof that racism is over. While it may be a sign of progress for some, it doesn’t translate universally. It’s sort of like saying all white people’s lives are like Bill Gates’, which would be highly annoying in its own right. “Get Out” gives us a better chance to examine such assumptions, albeit in a “body snatchers” context. In fact, and quite ironically, part of “Get Out’s” success may be that white America (at large) wanted a film to elucidate its own white guilt, even though the film was intended for black people (according to Peele).

For another layer of irony, white guilt may have an odd way of perpetuating systemic oppression in society, as the current trend in America is either “alt-right” literal and figurative wall-building or divisive, “center-left” identity politicking with vague allusions to radical ideals. Either approach is divisive and overly simplifies everyone and everything. Basically, center-left white guilt would have activists working within the confines of government and corporations (lawsuits, “shattering the glass ceiling,” cancelling careers, etc.), as opposed to directly creating alternatives to them. Now, this may all sound like a tangent, but it’s all easy to extrapolate from the film.

“Get Out” is not merely a critique of slavery, racism and body snatching, but a general warning about people who factually perpetuate the system while outwardly calling themselves “progressive.” That all aside, “Get Out” has notable performances by Daniel Kaluuya, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root and Lil Rel Howery .

About Wade Wainio

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