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The Race Question

Why are movies about racism, like “Rosewood” and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” such no-win propositions?

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Case No. 1: You are a respected white director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history — the 1963 slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. But just as you’re dusting off the mantel for that Oscar, the reviews slam you for shoving black characters to the sidelines and focusing on a white assistant district attorney. One black critic even labels your movie the most offensive film of 1996. Adding insult to injury, in its first weekend of wide release it makes a measly $5 million.

Case No. 2: You are a respected black director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history — the 1923 mass murder and burning of an entire black town in Florida. Once again, some critics take aim, blasting you for demonizing whites, turning blacks into cardboard saints, and propagating what one calls ”politically correct jingoism disguised as melodrama.” The opening weekend numbers: a paltry $3 million.

Talk about a no-win scenario. Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi and John Singleton‘s Rosewood couldn’t be more different, but even as audiences have largely ignored both, tempers have flared in Hollywood, where a very personal debate has been raging about who should be allowed to direct what sorts of pictures. Black filmmakers, furious at what they see as a long history of industry insensitivity, have accused white directors of patronizing attitudes and even outright racism. White directors, meanwhile, feeling damned if they do and damned if they don’t, have lobbed back charges of reverse racism. ”When you deal with race, you’re dealing with a tough subject,” says director Norman Jewison, who took the challenge in his 1967 social drama In the Heat of the Night and in 1984’s A Soldier’s Story. ”It can be very treacherous.”

”Let me put it this way,” offers Singleton. ”The whole of American cinema, from the moment Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope, has served to dehumanize black people, to make them into cartoons. White filmmakers have been remaking The Birth of a Nation over and over, except that now they do it in different ways. White directors don’t have a vested interest in making well-rounded black characters,” he goes on. ”Anyone who says they do is a liar. But black filmmakers do. If D.W. Griffith knew I was making movies, he’d be rolling in his grave. I want to keep him rolling.”

Singleton is laying it on a bit thick — after all, the last cinematic hero to wear a white sheet was Casper — but he does have a piece of a point. For decades, Hollywood films have dealt with race the same way — with a white protagonist smack in the middle of the action. Think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning, Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill, and Alec Baldwin in Ghosts. One reason has been fear of alienating white moviegoers; another, that there weren’t any black filmmakers with clout. Recently, though, much of that has changed — as Singleton’s new movie makes brutally clear.

Based on the sketchy facts of a historical incident, the film unfolds in a black town called Rosewood, a paradise on earth where everyone is well fed and gainfully employed. But when a woman from the neighboring white town falsely cries rape, it sets off a chain of revenge that ultimately leads to mass murder. The movie’s biggest invention is its main character—a mysterious black stranger portentously named Mr. Mann (Ving Rhames), who rides into town on a stallion, falls in love with a local girl, and eventually, six-guns blazing, attempts to save dozens of black children from being savaged by the Klan.

“He doesn’t do anything John Wayne or Gary Cooper didn’t do,” insists Singleton. “But the fact that he’s a black man makes it totally different.”

“I’m sick of movies where the white man has to come in and save the blacks because the blacks can’t take care of themselves,” explains veteran actress Esther Rolle, who plays Rosewood‘s angelic matriarch. “In this movie you’ve got a black man telling a black man’s story, rather than a white man trying to interpret a perspective totally alien to him.”

The white man she’s talking about could be Rob Reiner, once TV’s most famous liberal. Ironically, the artist formerly known as Meathead agrees with Rolle—sort of. “For years I had wanted to make a film that dealt with race relations,” he said when Ghosts was released. “I didn’t feel I had the right to tell the stories of people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or even Medgar Evers. But I felt I had the right to tell the story of a white person facing these issues and what he learns about himself.”

In other words, it would be presumptuous for a white director to tackle the black experience—unless he tackled it through the perspective of a white character, like Alec Baldwin’s assistant DA Bobby DeLaughter. Ghosts screenwriter Lewis Colick elaborates: “If we’d made the Medgar Evers story, can you imagine the hits we’d have taken? ‘How dare these white guys make the Medgar Evers story!’ So we didn’t go near that. But it turned out to be a no-win situation. It just makes me crazy when I think about it.”

He won’t get much sympathy from Spike Lee, who directed 1992’s Malcolm X after wresting the project from Jewison. “Ghosts of Mississippi is a bulls— movie,” he says. “If you’re going to tell a story about civil rights, then black people cannot be muthaf—in’ peripheral.” Lee thinks it’s possible for a white director to make a sensitive film about the African-American experience, but not likely. “Because he’s never been a black man in the United States,” he says. “You grow up with a whole mind-set.”

Jewison, not surprisingly, dissents: “That’s apartheid thinking. I don’t buy into that.”

Moviegoers, meantime, aren’t buying into any of it. “There are some subjects American audiences just don’t want to see, and race is one of them,” says one former studio head. “Not even African-Americans are going to these movies. The subject is just too tired. People have seen that, done that.” And yet, the subject remains irresistible to filmmakers of all colors. Despite the long odds and short tempers, several more race-related movies are in the works, including—the ultimate in white hubris!—an Oliver Stone biography of Martin Luther King Jr. As for Singleton, his next project is a film even Meathead’s old nemesis wouldn’t miss: an update of Shaft.