The filmmaker and writer Nelson George has a new piece in the New York Times called “Black-and-White Struggle With a Rosy Glow”. It is a short but sprawling report on the flimsy handling of the American civil rights movement in Hollywood films. He uses this week’s release of Tate Taylor’s The Help as an entry point to the pitfalls of American cinema regarding our nation’s incredible struggle with racism. He doesn’t introduce anything particularly new, but rather lays out what has been abundantly clear regarding how cinema tends to handle the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s.
The fail-safe response for Hollywood has been to depict racial prejudice in cartoon caricature, a technique that has made the Southern redneck a cinematic bad guy on par with Nazis, Arab terrorists and zombies. By denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed.
This paragraph feels of monumental importance in the wake of the recent murder of James Craig Anderson by a group of white teenagers led by 18-year-old Deryl Dedmon, Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi. Hollywood’s rednecks may be some kind of foreign evil, but in reality, they’re our friends and neighbors. Worse, they’re our kids.
One of the things that I find most harrowing about this horrific crime is Dedmon’s mugshot. He is a scrawny, bright-eyed boy, yet he is the face of hatred; he is the face of racism. Deryl Dedmon, Jr. is a murderer who killed a black man because he thought it would be fun. George’s point is that in films we don’t see the commonplace racism that leads to horrific acts such as Anderson’s murder. Hollywood’s stories need a villain, but what about when that villain is the kid next door?
Do the filmmakers put us inside the head of the black woman braving a gantlet of jeering whites to integrate a segregated school? Do we understand the strain on a white diner owner who finally allows blacks to enter his place despite the anger of his neighbors? It is this nuanced humanity that this movement demands.
I feel Melvin Van Peebles’s 1970 Watermelon Man is worth mentioning here. The film is about Jeff Gerber (played by comedian Godfrey Cambridge), a loudmouth suburban white racist who wakes up one day as a black man. His friends, family and neighbors who were once the prim and pious quiet ones in the face of his boisterous racism, now show their true colors toward Gerber’s new form. Once it is clear that there is nothing that could make Gerber white again, his relationships and his status erode to the point that he is no longer welcome in the community. The film ends on a sobering note, with Gerber and other black men preparing to fight, as if for battle. The war, it seems, was only beginning.
Peebles would go on to make the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. That film represents a turning point in black cinema, but Watermelon Man is a standout work in its own right. It portrays what Nelson George is suggesting, rightly, is too often forgotten in civil rights cinema, showing us not just the violent ugliness of racism but its underlying prevalence. The violent history of racism in this country is something we should never undermine. Still, there is a certain horror in watching Jeff Gerber’s neighbors cogently explain why he must move out for fear of their property values dropping. This was not the extreme, this was market-supported racism that illustrated just how deeply entrenched our nation was.
If George’s Times piece gets you fired up to seek out films about the civil rights movement, I think Watermelon Man should be on your shortlist. Follow it up with a screening of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and you’ll already be two films deep into Peebles’s repertoire. Not a bad start.