The Civil Rights Era in Film: Four Tired Tropes and Why They Have to Go
The Civil Rights Era is hugely popular in historical fiction. In film, the subgenre has produced some of the most loved movies in the medium’s history, both by critics and audiences. Movies such as Mississippi Burning (1988) and The Help (2011) were praised for presenting a complex interpretation of an ugly and difficult past. Mississippi Burning takes place in 1964 and follows two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) who are sent to Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. Once they get there, they find the local law enforcement to be incredibly corrupt and unhelpful, and their job becomes much harder than they expected. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won one, and Roger Ebert called it “the best American film of 1988. (Ebert)
The Help approaches Civil Rights in a different but no less dramatic manner. It revolves around an aspiring writer named Skeeter (Emma Stone), who after realizing the injustice suffered by the maids who work for her friends, offers to anonymously tell their stories in a book that becomes a local sensation. It was one of the most popular films of the year, and was nominated for four Academy Awards (including two for Best supporting actress), as well as a slew of other awards.
Because of their popularity, these two movies define the standards of the subgenre in many people’s minds, and as such are perfect examples of the devices Hollywood thinks it has to resort to to make the subject appeal to a mass audience. Though not all movies will use all these tropes, it’s rare for a movie depicting race relations to avoid using at least one. It’s easy to see why Civil Rights has become such a popular backdrop for film. It’s a highly charged and therefore naturally dramatic time in the country’s past, far enough away to feel comfortable talking about it and yet close enough to still be thrilling, like the proverbial train wreck.
However, the devices Hollywood uses to sustain this feeling do more than memorialize history. By constructing a set of tropes around a real event, Civil Rights Era movies force a specific type of narrative where there historically wasn’t one. These are devices Hollywood uses time and again, systematically presenting an inaccurate and strangely nostalgic version of a very real and painful time period. These films don’t just interpret history, they revise it. Here, in no particular order, are those tropes.
1. The White Savior
See also: To Kill A Mockingbird, Ghosts of Mississippi, Glory Road
This is a trope that tends to pop up in any story concerning race relations, so it’s no surprise that the White Savior is a crucial part of the Civil Rights Era narrative Hollywood has constructed. He/she is smart, spunky, and white as can be. These characters are always singular and special in that they are the only ones in their (always Southern) community who finally dares to recognize racism as a problem. Eventually, they put their own reputation and safety on the line to make a difference that would not have been possible without them. Some of the most loved movies in history heavily feature a White Savior.
It’s commonly acknowledged that Hollywood has a bad habit of assuming that its audience is primarily white. Yet somehow, many films set in the Civil Rights era manage to assume just that and get away with it. This is because the White Savior, as a racially specified character archetype, is there to reaffirm the attitude that the presumably white audience already had going into the movie. The White Savior is a character specifically designed to make the viewer feel good about him or herself, and as such, he/she safeguards against the risk disturbing any of the audience’s previously held views of race conflict.
When Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) flouts all rules of the FBI in Mississippi Burning and goes on his violent one-man justice crusade against the racist Mississippi law enforcement, we are asked to think of his vigilantism as a moral and even patriotic act. The problem with this is that Agent Anderson occupies a role which never existed in the real struggle of Civil Rights. His character is a fantasy, and the audience is given no choice but to be grateful that the FBI was there to “rescue the submissive, illiterate, quaking black people unable and unwilling to stand up for themselves.” (Chafe 276)
2. The Subordinate Black
See also: The Butler, Driving Miss Daisy, Radio
Implicit in the idea of a White Savior is that there is someone to save in the first place. In too many cases, black characters are the victims of prejudice, but are never the agents of their own justice. Instead, they are reduced to such an inert status that, according to the narrative structure of the film, their only hope of salvation lies in their white hero. Black characters in these movies exist mainly for the social enlightenment of the film’s white main character. They have no onscreen life besides their work, and their role is subservient and apparently relatively content to be so. In Mississippi Burning, people of color are hardly characters at all, and instead simply act as a mass of people so oppressed and uneducated that they are apparently incapable of understanding the possibility of any other life.
The Help, for all its critical and popular acclaim, is extremely guilty of demeaning its black characters. Until Skeeter offers to tell the black maids’ stories, they are completely unwilling to have any kind of active role in the Civil Rights movement. Curiously, this remains true even when Minny (Octavia Spender), one of the maids, stands up for herself. Minny’s actions, though sassy, are ultimately ineffective as a tool for her own independence. Her defiance of the rules she lives under are treated as a cheap source of humor throughout the movie, as she isn’t presented as capable enough to think up anything more sophisticated than feeding her former boss a particularly nasty pie.
3. The White Devil
See also: Hairspray, A Time to Kill, The Intruder
Racism in many Civil Rights movies is not discussed in terms of cultural tradition. Hardly ever do the characters of a movie simply grow up with racism to the point that they don’t notice it anymore, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. This is the truth of how racism persists, but the sociological story of racism does not make for good drama. Rather, there has to be a physical embodiment of racism. Usually a singular person, but sometimes encompassing a small group (as in Mississippi Burning‘s white law enforcement), this trope can best be described as the opposite of the White Savior. If the White Savior is engineered to be a person the audience can relate to, then the villain of the movie exists to compare themselves against. The type of racism shown in this trope incites emotion, but it’s a morally superior kind, which allows the audience to judge the failures of everyone in the movie without seeing any of these traits mirrored in themselves. The Help once again outdoes itself in this regard with Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Minny’s impossibly evil white boss, who kicks off the entire plot of the film by advocating for separate bathrooms for black maids because, as she says, blacks “carry different diseases.”
The presence of such a caricature suggests an interesting attitude these films have toward racism. Though people like Hilly have no doubt existed, their obnoxious form of racism has never been the norm. However, Hollywood continually insists on portraying it this way. It makes for good drama, but more importantly these types of portrayals suggest that there was once a time when societal problems were clear, understandable, and as a result, safe. In portraying anyone who’s racist as a ridiculously evil White Devil, Hollywood treats racism as a plot device, ignoring the cultural and personal factors that make it so hard to eradicate and instead appearing to long for a time when evil was so easy to spot.
4. The Traditional South
See also: Forrest Gump, The Secret Life of Bees
The American South is an iconic place in many ways, and the aesthetic of films set in the region capitalize upon this idea. Hollywood particularly seems to be in love with the image of vintage American South. The Help is shot with beauty in mind: everyone has perfect hair and lovely dresses, everything is lit in green and gold, all the houses are gorgeous. Arguably, this is America idealized. Alternatively, Mississippi Burning shoots its setting almost as if Mississippi were a completely foreign country, savage and untamed. In both cases, the racial conflict inherent in the 1960’s is not depicted as an American problem. Rather, it is a Southern problem, the result of a backward and evil community that has chosen not to progress with the rest of the country.
Hollywood manages to combine both these ideas into one conglomerated image of the American South that, it is important to note, never existed. Instead, the entire region is reinvented for style, suggesting a destructively nostalgic attitude Hollywood has toward an extremely painful time in America’s past. In The Help, the dangers to the maids never seem real. Realistically, Minny’s stunt with the pie would almost certainly have resulted in her death, yet the entire situation is played for laughs. On the other hand, Agent Anderson’s bloody conflict with the local law enforcement is portrayed as a necessary evil, playing by an imaginary Southern social code that spits in the face of civilization and needs a hero with savvy and strength to come tame it.
It’s tempting to think of film as solely a medium for entertainment, but in a time when screens have become our main source of information, film shapes our perception of history in a very real way. The white-centric and exaggerated character archetypes employed by Hollywood in its treatment of Civil Rights distorts history to the point of reinvention. Historical fiction, like science fiction, is usually seen as allegorical to present-day events. If the White Savior trope is designed to tell the audience that they were right all along, then where is the room for self-reflection? Where is the challenge to comfortable sensibilities that we have come to expect in a well-done allegory?
Relegating black people to a supporting role in their own struggle for equality implies that Civil Rights was primarily a white problem, and would not have been resolved were it not for white benevolence. This, in addition to the morally superior attitude these films encourage in their audience, is a destructive and dangerous trend. The history of the Civil Rights movement looks decidedly different from the way it is portrayed in film, but Hollywood has a disturbing habit of disrespecting this fact, turning the subgenre into nothing more than a vehicle for nostalgia.
Chafe, William H. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: H. Holt, 1995. Print.
Ebert, Roger. “Mississippi Burning Movie Review (1988) | Roger Ebert.” Rogerebert.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.
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