Back in 2004, the movie Crash was hailed as an important film for giving mainstream America a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between police and people of color. It won three Oscars including Best Motion Picture and Original Screenplay. A moviegoer who went to see Crash in the theater might have thought, Finally! A movie that deals with racial injustice and the police! That is, if that person never saw Colors, which came out in 1988, three years before the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, or the 1975 movie Cornbread, Earl and Me about a black boy whose idol, a promising teenage basketball star in the neighborhood, is killed by police in a case of mistaken identity. That early 2000s moviegoer might also never have even heard of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! from 1971, or the Sidney Poitier classic In the Heat of the Night from 1967.
It’s a good thing that popular movies can advance an understanding of social-justice issues by reaching segments of society that aren’t reached by traditional activism and by providing updated perspectives on ongoing issues. After all, the weekend moviegoer is often a person who might not come to a protest, speech, or public meeting, and movies deliver these messages in the form of entertainment, which appeals to wider range of sensibilities. Put simply, people like stories better than diatribes.
However, the fickle inertia of the movie industry can also convince audiences that what’s been going on for a long time is actually new, especially in the way that its marketing bluster has overused the idea of something being “important.” Each time, it is the most important one— since the last one— or until the next one . . .
Here’s the problem: old movies don’t sell as many tickets as new movies do, so the industry urges us toward the next big thing. It’s so important that we see it, and no one wants to miss something important. But in our furor to see it, we can’t forget that social-justice messages in popular movies are not new. This goes to whether we know our own history— and whether we know popular media’s history of addressing social-justice issues. Even though it is 2018 and we’re hyper-focused on modern problems, a whole range of films have been addressing some of the same problems we face today. As a teacher, I hear concerns about teenage girls with body image issues using apps to modify their faces for social media. In 2002, Real Women Have Curves told the story of a young woman struggling with body image; that was the year that current sixteen-year-old girls were born. Or, as we struggle with the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests, how many people know the 1998 film American History X, which was about two white-supremacist brothers like the ones we just saw?
And it goes back further than that. What about the commentaries on human rights and property rights made by The Milagro Beanfield War in 1988? There is also the 1971 classic Billy Jack, which can make a viewer ask himself all sorts of moral questions about standing up to power. Nearly sixty years ago, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer was a very dark testament to the struggles of a Southern gay man for whom openness was not an option. In 1957, 12 Angry Men dealt directly with an all-white, all-male jury’s racial and socio-economic prejudices against the defendant. Going even further back, 1947’s It’s A Wonderful Life made a surreal commentary on how unchecked corporate greed could affect ordinary people’s lives. We can chuckle nostalgically at Jimmy Stewart stumbling through the snow and shouting at the old movie house, but it shouldn’t be ignored what Mr. Potter symbolized: the dangers of consolidating wealth into a few hands.
In the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, actor Henry Fonda gave a stirring monologue that is sometimes called the “I’ll be there” speech. During the Depression, Fonda’s character Tom Joad had faced hardship and suffering and, in the end, proclaimed that he would fight for justice. Wherever people are suffering and wherever police are hurting innocent people, his spirit would be among them.
Most people living today weren’t even born when that movie came out – seventy-eight years ago – but that doesn’t change the universality of the message: injustice didn’t just begin, nor will it end anytime soon, so standing up against it will always be necessary. The hashtag #resist may be new, but the sentiment isn’t.
Yes, there is a long history of injustice in America, but there is also a long history of speaking out against it. (There is a good reason that we hear about Hollywood being “liberal.”) Activists from WEB DuBois or Myles Horton to Dorothy Day or Angela Davis have done their work, but screenwriters, producers, and filmmakers have also contributed mightily to the “national conversation” on social-justice issues that we’re still debating today: racism and sexism, income inequality and workers’ rights, the quality of public schools, and the dangers of technology. While some old movies might seem dated in hindsight, what we shouldn’t do is get so tied up in this year’s “important” film that we forget about all the other important ones that came before it. Whether the in-crowd and hot-button naysayers realize this or not doesn’t change the fact: these national conversations have actually been going on for a quite some time.
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