Top 10 Civil Rights Films: The Movies March on Washington
August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the historic march on the U.S. capital, and Hollywood was well represented. Actors such as Sidney Poitier, Gregory Peck, Harry Belafonte, Burt Lancaster, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and a pre-NRA Charlton Heston joined Dr. Martin Luther King, SNCC’s John Lewis, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and other civil rights leaders for the epochal “Jobs and Freedom” demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial. Marlon Brando told a reporter, “We’re here as Americans to give the full support that we can in every way to the legislation that is now pending before Congress because we believe it to be right.”
American movies have played their part in the civil rights struggle.
Here are the Top 10 civil rights films:
1. Set not in the segregated South but Southside Chicago, the 1961 screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s social realist play “A Raisin in the Sun,” produced by liberal TV talk show host David Susskind, revealed the institutionalized racism still afflicting Blacks in the supposedly enlightened North, especially in terms of housing. Sidney Poitier arguably delivers his greatest performance as Walter Lee Younger, an emasculated chauffeur yearning for more. Ruby Dee plays Walter’s long-suffering wife Ruth. The family’s matriarch Claudia McNeil (who scored a 1959 Tony for portraying Lena in the Broadway version of “Raisin”) fights to keep the Youngers together, as they seek to move from the “hood” to the suburbs. Louis Gossett Jr. co-stars with Ivan Dixon as Asagai, a Nigerian student who woos the nationalistic Beneatha Younger (Diana Sands), providing “Raisin” with some “back to Mother Africa” consciousness.
2. As crusading attorney Atticus Finch in 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Gregory Peck personified the noble Caucasian of conscience who defends persecuted Blacks and won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for doing so. Although set in the Depression-era South, Harper Lee’s story -- cleverly told from a child’s perspective -- had deep resonance for moviegoers experiencing the Civil Rights movement. “Mockingbird’s” compassion for those different from most vanilla townsfolk -- the possibly mentally-impaired Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) and the unusual Dill (John Megna plays Lee’s childhood neighbor Truman Capote as a lad) -- extended to empathy for the racial underdog in the Southern pecking order. As the Finches’ maid Calpurnia (the name of Julius Caesar’s wife), Estelle Evans provides maternal comfort for the motherless Scout (Mary Badham). Unfortunately, Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of raping a white girl, is a passive courtroom character while Peck’s protagonist propels the saga. Nevertheless, “Mockingbird’s” condemnation of bigotry still packs an undeniable wallop.
3. 1962’s “The Intruder,” produced/directed by Roger Corman is among the most powerful Civil Rights movies. Before planet-hopping in “Star Trek’s integrated spaceship with Chekov, Sulu and Uhura, William Shatner played a racist rabble-rouser who travels to a Southern town undergoing school desegregation to stir up trouble in this low budge pic using incendiary vocabulary, including the N-word. “Intruder” includes riveting scenes of an MLK-like minister preaching nonviolent resistance to Black students who march through bigoted picketers into their new high school. A mass rally with the demagogic Shatner denouncing the NAACP as “nothing but a Communist front headed by a Jew who hates America,” claiming “commies” seek to “mongrelize” the country, whipping the “redneck” crowd into a frenzy. Afterwards a mob besieges a Black family in an auto; Shatner leads a caravan of Klansmen to a cross burning; a Black church is dynamited; a white co-ed falsely claims a Black student rapes her but then confesses, saving him from a lynch mob. According to Camp Corman shot “The Intruder” on location in the South, recruiting non-actors as extras who enthusiastically responded to Shatner’s white supremacy rants.
4. In indie director Sam Fuller’s lurid “Shock Corridor,” released about two weeks after the March on Washington, a Pulitzer Prize-seeking newspaperman (Peter Breck) voluntarily commits himself to an insane asylum where, among other demented inmates, he encounters Trent (Hari Rhodes), one of the first “Negroes” to attend a segregated Southern college. However, the deluded Trent -- diagnosed with “acute schizophrenia” -- fantasizes he’s a Klansman whose white power ravings rile other patients up, inspiring a race riot. “Shock’s” revelation of Trent’s Black skin beneath his white KKK robes is, well, shocking.
5. Released one month after the March on Washington, with its title wittily spoofing “Gone with the Wind,” Ossie Davis’s 1963 “Gone are the Days!” pokes fun at racial tropes and a paternalism way down yonder in the land of cotton that’s rapidly disappearing. Davis wrote and starred in the movie based on his play “Purlie” as Reverend Purlie Victorious. The preacher returns to the Georgia of his birth with fiancé Lutiebelle (Davis’s wife Ruby Dee), intent on upending Simon Legree-like plantation owner Ol’ Cap’, Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Sorrell Booke). In his screen debut, Alan Alda is hilarious as Ol’ Cap’s liberal son Charlie, who gets socked in the eye for quoting Jefferson’s declaration that “all men are created equal.” “Days!” co-stars Beah Richards and Godfrey Cambridge, who was Tony-nominated for uproariously playing on Broadway Uncle Tom-like Gitlow, to whom Purlie quips: “If slavery comes back I want to be your agent.”
6. As LBJ launched “the Great Society” and “War on Poverty” 1964 was a banner year for Civil Rights Cinema. “Black Like Me” is based on John Howard Griffin’s (James Whitmore) real-life undercover expose, wherein the journalist darkened his skin to “pass” as Black so he could report on his experiences in the Jim Crow South. Blacklisted actor Will Geer, Al Freeman Jr., Roscoe Lee Brown, Raymond St. Jacques, and Sorrell Booke co-star in this harrowing eye-opener about bigotry’s indignities.
7. Since D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” sex between a Black male and white female has been among screendom’s biggest bugaboos, yet the 1964 indie “One Potato, Two Potato” tackles this taboo topic far more honestly than Stanley Kramer’s big studio production “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” did three years later. The film candidly deals with the hot potato subject of an interracial marriage between Frank Richards (Bernie Hamilton, who’d appeared in the 1950s movies “The Jackie Robinson Story,” “The Harlem Globetrotters” and “Carmen Jones”) and white divorcee Julie (Barbara Barrie, who scored a Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award for the role and went on to co-star in the 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller” and to be Oscar-nominated for 1979’s “Breaking Away”). Claiming it’s inappropriate for a mixed couple to raise a child, Julie’s ex-husband Joe (Richard Mulligan of the 1977-1981 TV sitcom “Soap”) contests custody of their daughter; the ensuing court battle will strike a chord with today’s same-sex marriages.
8. In Michael Roemer’s 1964 “Nothing But a Man” Duff (Ivan Dixon) and Josie (jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln in her acting debut) play a Black couple confronting discrimination in Dixie. This is a simple, poignant drama with a moving performance by Dixon (who co-starred in the 1960s POW sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes”) as a man seeking dignity, against all obstacles.
9. 1970’s “Watermelon Man” turns the old minstrel blackface trope upside down, when prejudiced Caucasian Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) somehow wakes up Black, much to the horror of wife Althea (Estelle Parsons). With the tables turned, Gerber experiences American bigotry firsthand. By the end of “Watermelon Man” he has become so embittered -- and enlightened -- by the realities of racism that Gerber participates in self-defense training taught by Black militants to fight the man.
“Watermelon Man’s” finale signaled the end of the passive resistance espoused by the Civil Rights movement. Once Dr. King was assassinated, assimilation was challenged by nationalism, nonviolence morphed into Black Power and increasingly militant movies reflected this change.
10. The tension and division between civil disobedience and militancy, Civil Rights and Black Power, is at the heart of the just-released “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” With its imagery of Jim Crow sharecropping, lynching, Freedom Riders desegregating Woolworth’s lunch counters and being attacked on a bus and jailed, Klansmen, et al, this epic spans almost a century of social injustice as seen through the eyes of the ultimate House Negro. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) is a White House butler who serves presidents from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) through the Reagans (Alan Rickman as Ron and the cannily cast Jane Fonda as Nancy, who enters deriding “foreign policy hawks”). Cecil is the classic “go along, get along” sell-out who uses his skillful servility and obsequiousness as a means for social mobility. But the manservant to the Man clashes with son Louis (David Oyelo), who evolves from Freedom Rider to Black Panther. After they argue over Sidney Poitier, whom beret-wearing Louis derides as an Uncle Tom, Cecil throws him out of the house, his mother Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) smacks him, and his father foolishly banishes his militant son. Over the years Gaines comes to question his subservience and ill-gotten “gains”; there’s finally a father-son rapprochement at a pro-Mandela rally in front of Washington’s South Africa embassy, resulting in the jailing of both Louis and Cecil.
Although “Butler” culminates with the dubious proposition that Obama’s election is the fulfillment of the Civil Rights movement, given the Trayvon Martin case, the recent Supreme Court rollback of voting rights and more, the equal rights struggle continues off- and on-screen.
Other recent civil rights films include 2011’s “The Help,” about maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Minny, the servant who knows revenge is a dessert best served cold) in the segregated South; 2012’s “Lincoln,” with Oyelo as a Union Army corporal and Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president crusading for a constitutional amendment to ban slavery; Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 “Django Unchained” with Jamie Foxx on a shooting rampage against his ex-masters; 2013’s 42 is a biopic about Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson and the desegregation of baseball, with Harrison Ford as a conscientious Caucasian somewhat in the Atticus Finch tradition; Ryan Coogler’s recently released “Fruitvale Station” about the police killing of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan); plus the upcoming “12 Years a Slave,” about a free Black abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Quvenzhané Wallis; and the biopic “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” starring Idris Elba as the iconic freedom fighter.
These productions prove that the Civil Rights cinema’s truth is marching on -- from Washington to a theater near you.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and screenwriter. He is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States. His interview with Costa-Gavras is in the September issue of The Progressive. The new book Rampell co-authored, The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, is being released by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing in October 2013.
- Give a Gift
- About Us
- Civil Liberties
CURRENT ISSUE: December 2013 / January 2014
Rick Bass | Why I’m left with no choice but to put my body on the line.
When Government Was Neighborly
Wendell Berry | Saluting a New Deal program that helped Kentucky farmers.
The Bravest Woman I Know
Kathy Kelly | How an eighty-two-year-old librarian braved Baghdad.
How to Build a New World
Naomi Klein | Why I was wrong in The Shock Doctrine—and what we must do now.