There is a number of excellent movies portraying the emotional time period that we call the Civil Rights Era. Wikipedia has defined the African-American Civil Rights Movement as being the years 1955-1968, which is one of the things about Wikipedia that I find to be slightly laughable. The Civil Rights movement may have “ended” in our text books and encyclopedias with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson. However, as someone who has studied our nation’s history of Slavery and on up to the Civil Rights movement and into the “Modern” United States – it is clear to see that Civil Rights movements did not end in 1968. One way Hollywood has shown this is through the use of film. I am fascinated with films that touch on the realities that African Americans have faced in the past centuries, both what they have overcome as well as what they still faced until recent years. Hollywood certainly does tend to cause the audience to empathize with the characters that they see fit, but in a few cases there movies that attempt to truly tell the story of what it was like for African Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. I have interviewed a number of African Americans who grew up in Mississippi (to be exact 3 women who were in their teens and twenties in the 1960s and 7 men who were anywhere from 9 to mid 30s in the early sixties) for a previous class in which I was comparing the realities of the Hollywood film “Mississippi Burning” to what 1950s-1960s Mississippi was really like. My father is from Biloxi Mississippi, born in 1958, and he helped me set up these interviews a couple of years back. The general concensus that all 10 people I interviewed agreed on was that the emotions that movies such as “Mississippi Burning” were very real emotions. All ten said that at numerous times in their growing up lives they felt threatened and belittled by racism, which is essentially what Hollywood wants us to see in these films. Generally they take it a step further by throwing in a Happy ending, often times with either a love story or a scene of a white person and a black person hugging (sappy, but effective in selling tickets).
Two movies which I used to show Civil Rights History were “Mississippi Burning” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” (which follows the book better than any other book-to-movie feature I have ever seen). “Mississippi Burning” was based on the real life murders of 3 civil rights workers in 1964, but there are a number of fictional instances as well. The 2 FBI characters in the film are fictional, but the film does successfully capture the emotions of both black and white people in Mississippi during this time period. The scene I chose shows the murder of the 3 civil rights workers as they are being pursued by not only the angry townsmen (presumably members of the KKK) but also the town police. The end of this clip shows the men being involved being arrested and their minimal sentencing for the malicious murder of 3 innocent men.
I chose to use “To Kill A Mockingbird” as an earlier interpretation of the Civil Rights movement. This film was based in the 1930s, in small-town Alabama where it was difficult to even comprehend that African Americans could have any rights. The release of this book was right at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The narrator of the film, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch watches as her father (and only parent) attempts to represent a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman. The film shows the racial injustices of the South when an all white jury convicts Tom Robinson, the black man on trial, for the rape even though it has been clearly proved he was innocent of the charge. Aside from the obvious racism that Tom Robinson endured it also shows the harsh treatment white people got for even attempting to help African American during this time.
I find it interesting to look at the time gap between the two movies, one which is meant to be set in the 1930s and another that actually occurred in the mid 1960s, and how prevalent racism still was during that thirty year gap. As mentioned earlier the Civil Rights Movement has been defined as the years from 1955-1968, but these films show that it was a much wider time span than that and the years before and after were just as prominent in the Movement and the results our country sees today.