The Oscars Been Awarded but There Are Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

Just over a century after the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s film of the same name came to the silver screen. While the Griffith film justified the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed white racism as the salvation of America, the Parker film traces the life of Nat Turner and the slave revolt which he led in pre-Civil War Virginia. From totally opposing perspectives, both films spoke to the fear and anger that has poisoned American race relations since before the Revolution.

It should certainly not surprise us that films speak to our national consciousness and help us define who we are and what we believe. If there is one art form that is quintessentially American, it is movies, and what greater purpose has art than to explore the human condition.

While the two “Birth of a Nation” films explore the darkest sides of American race relations, three other films released at the end of 2016 try to raise an entirely different set of issues.

“Fences,” based on the August Wilson stage play, presents a Black America that is separate and if not equal one that has its own unique culture. The protagonist Troy Maxson is a Black man who is painfully aware of the limitations that have been placed on his life because of his race. Fearful of what the world will do to them, he tries to protect his sons by forcing them to see the world through his own bitter eyes. Set in the 1950’s, “Fences” references both the fact that Black Americans were fenced in by segregation and prejudice and the career of Jackie Robinson, whose success as a baseball player gave hope for an avenue towards equality.

“Loving” is based not on a play or story but real lives. Richard and Mildred Loving were a working-class couple who loved one another. Because he was White and she Black, the state of Virginia forbad their marriage. Going out of state to marry, they returned to Virginia and found themselves jailed and only released if they promised to leave the state. Featured in a Life Magazine story which I remember reading, the Lovings eventually won not only the right to have their marriage recognized in the home state but also the legal end of miscegenation laws in America. Loving v. Virginia was decided by the Supreme Court Dec 12, 1967. The movie asks a simple but poignant question: are Blacks less human than Whites; are we not all more nearly human than otherwise?

During the years between 1958, when the Lovings married, and 1967 another story was also playing out in Virginia. NASA was established in 1958 with the goal of taking America into space. “Hidden Figures” focuses on three Black women who worked at NASA’s Virginia facilities. Dorothy Vaughan eventually became NASA’s first Black-American supervisor. Mary Jackson became an aeronautical engineer. And, mathematics whiz Katherine Johnson played a pivotal role in figuring out how to bring the astronauts home. These three women entered NASA when it was a segregated and misogynistic organization and managed to find the recognition they deserved. This multiple-biopic subconsciously takes us back to Jackie Robinson as it challenges us to judge people not on race but on competence. Should the best mathematician, engineer, or supervisor not get the job regardless of the color of their skin. The message is clear: we are all the same under our skins. Or, to use one of the most self-conscious lines of the script, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” Presumably, that is the color of rocket fuel.

Why this sudden spurt of films about the Black experience in the fifties and sixties? It would be easy to point out the diversity has become an issue in Hollywood and particularly when it comes to awards. That may be one part of the answer.

Another, and in my opinion a more important answer is represented by that centennial of the release of that abhorrent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The release of that film in 1915 began a portrayal of Black America that has often been offensive and assuredly requires redress. As distasteful as the representations of Blacks has overall been in film, that issue pales in comparison to the actuality of Black life. And, on the other side, as horrific as slavery, segregation, and bigotry have been, there has been real movement towards civil rights. Without doubt, the possibilities for Black Americans are far greater and better today than they were at the beginning of the fifties and sixties.

The question that these three films asks is what has made things better. During those years, powerful voices were raised, marches held, and riots occurred. Were those the catalyst for change, or did change come because White America came to see Blacks, like all of us, were more nearly human than otherwise? These new films would have us ignore the marchers, the rioters, and the conflicts. They would have us learn a new mythology of American race relations, one in which aspirations change the world and the system can be altered from within.

These three movies are trying to rewrite the history of race in America. They are trying to say, “Let us forget about racism and segregation. Let us forget about the struggle that brought Civil Rights. Let us instead recognize that the right prevails, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and that the basic American character is one of decency.”

Is this revision realistic? Can we rewrite American history and bury slavery, segregation, the Klan, and discrimination? The rage of both “Birth of a Nation” films is seared into the soul of America. It cannot be so easily papered over. Elimination of America’s racial divide will require not simply the creation of a new set of “happier” myths but real reconciliation.

The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke of the shadow, that part of each person that they cannot accept in themselves. It is the part of the person that they keep hidden. Reconciliation cannot take place until those shadowy parts on all sides are exposed in the light of recognition. As much as I enjoyed the three films, “Fences,” “Loving,” and “Hidden Figures,” I see them not as sanguine harbingers of a just and equal society but as signs that once again America will try to bury that which is dark in our history. If the “American Dilemma” is to be resolved, it cannot be by the application of whitewash but only by the piercing sting of real discussion.

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Bio: Novelist, poet, and retired psychologist Ken Weene has long been a movie buff. Currenly, he is co-writing a script based on his novel Times to Try the Soul of Mani. You can find more of his writing at www.kennethweene.com

 

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5 thoughts on “The Oscars Been Awarded but There Are Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

  1. Trish Jackson

    Very thought-provoking, Ken. For me, Hollywood has lost its credibility of recent years so I personally wouldn’t pay any attention to what they try to project, although I know they do have an influence on some people. We are living in the information age and we have at our fingertips the means to find out what is real and what isn’t.

    What I see in the news in many of our cities is reality, and black on black violence seems to be a far greater problem in the USA than racism and discrimination at this time in our history. Is it some kind of mass psychological coping method? Are they acting out some deeply ingrained self-recrimination? You’re the pyschologist. What do you think?

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  2. John Rosenman

    These are three good movies to focus on in discussing this topic. I’m reminding of another recent movie, “The Help,” which came a little earlier. I like your reference to Jung’s the shadow. Perhaps it should never be exorcised or whitewashed away completely lest we forget our history, which is never recommended.

    I haven’t seen two of the movies yet, but I did enjoy “Loving.” It was honest, touching, and restrained, with excellent performances.

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  3. Mary L Wallace

    Ken. Wow, you blew me away with your analysis. I’m doing a lot of voting for Postwaves #amwriting and this is the first truly 5-star article I’ve run across in a long time. Every thing you said has merit. I think it really hit home for me when I read the Carl Jung quote and I agree completely. I also see this new narrative of the African-American experience, too, as maybe something that we ALL may look fondly back on someday, because of what I fear lies ahead. I BELIEVE what the autocrat says and I think that if you are not a white, rich male, you’re an endangered species in this country period. Think about that. Women, minorities of all kind, LGBTQ; we’re ALL at risk.

    I’m old enough to remember the Watts’ riot and remember seeing the glow from our living room window. My parents, born in Scotland, understood none of what was going on, because they had no reference point, but I was learning in school about slavery and about the casual racism and Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, but the LAPD chose to ignore those self-same Civil Rights. There were many riots throughout the 60s, generally in the summers and generally over a beating of some poor black man, shot or arrested under murky circumstances.

    We would do well to remember that we all bear that shadow and acknowledge it. I believe that because our society became overly enamored of “politically correct” ways of talking and supposedly, thinking, that women, minorities and LGBTQ persons began to think we were all safe, free and equal. What we have witnessed with this last election is the complete opposite of that. We have the rise of the alt-Right, which is just the old Klu Klux Klan, minus the bedsheets, huntin’ dogs and moonshine; they’ve put on fancy suits and carry clipboards now. Women, rather than being empowered, as we thought we were, are still in danger; constantly in danger. Sadly, the African-American who deserves so richly to be right up here with everyone else at the table, is still having to fight for … I don’t even know any more; the right to be Safe, Free and Equal, with the rest of us. Until that happens, NONE of us are. Bless you, Ken. This is a fine article! Mary 5 stars

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  4. Steve Lindahl

    I haven’t seen two of the recent films you mentioned, so commenting about them would be unfair, but I would like to join your conversation as it relates to “Hidden Figures.”

    I agree with what you feel that film states when you say:

    “that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and that the basic American character is one of decency.”

    But I don’t agree when you say:

    “They would have us learn a new mythology of American race relations, one in which aspirations change the world and the system can be altered from within.”

    I don’t see protest and aspirations as either/or reasons for the improvement of race relations, but rather as two factors that worked and continue to work toward the same goal.

    “Hidden Figures” is not about protests. It isn’t “Mississippi Burning.” It’s about the struggles of women who want to overcome the barriers to their careers presented by their race and gender. Protests weren’t what was needed here. Each of these women needed to focus on her tasks and demonstrate that she could accomplish what had to be done better than anyone else.

    Think of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King. Jackie Robinson needed to demonstrate his talent, to help the Dodgers win. To do so, he needed to clear his mind of the hatred and racism among the fans and focus on his task. If he had yelled back when he was attacked, he wouldn’t have played as well and it would have taken much longer to integrate baseball. Martin Luther King, however, needed to protest. He needed to write “The Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was his role to point out the injustice of society. He gave his life for that goal.

    One interesting comment the film makes about life in the sixties, at least life within the NASA work environment, was that society had advanced to a point where genius could be recognized in an African American woman (a paraphrase of a line from the film), but not to the point where that same woman could be publicly recognized for her contribution. We had to wait another sixty years to reach that point.

    Thank you, Ken, for an excellent, thought provoking article.

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  5. Micki Peluso

    I used to watch movies more than I do now but I have to say that in my opinion some of the best films ever, all the way back to ‘Gone with the Wind’ had outstanding black performers. Just as any film with Morgan Freeman in it has to be great,and Sidney Poitier and on and on, I think actors like these out perform other actors. The same goes for black women performers, singers, etc. Whether it’s acting, dancing, music and sports most African Americans are naturals in athletics and arts. My husband and I were discussing this one night while watching a Mel Gibson film. I noted that due to the horrendous act of slavery, the strongest and best of the lot were culled from the rest and interbred with other ‘best’ picks, which over the years produced a multi-talented race of people. It’s nice to realize that such a heinous act contributed in part, to the talent and intelligence we have today.

    Yet I am saddened and appalled at the forces in the background which are pitting black and white against each other, conjuring up renewed hatred–even evil just when we were making such progress.

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