20 February 2012

Movie Monday: Black History Month

February is Black History month.  And so this weekend I wanted to watch some films that fell in with this theme.  As an undergraduate, I ended up doing a lot of research on civil rights.  A full years worth when it comes down to it.  Now that I'm in grad school, people have asked me why I chose to study what I study.  To be honest, I'm still not quite sure how to answer that question.  Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in a racially diverse area.  At all.  And so I was curious.    Maybe it's because I don't see race first when I look at a person.  Maybe it's because I voted for the first black president.  Or maybe it's because I saw Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and thought, "Wow, this must have been incredible for it's time."  And it definitely was.  1967 -- the height of the civil rights era -- a nation pushed to the edge.  And along came Joey Drayton and John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), the couple who shared the first on screen kiss between an interracial couple.  Oh yeah, the film also starred Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as the young white woman's parents.  It was absolutely groundbreaking.  Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states when the film made its debut.  From a historical standpoint, it is an incredible primary source for civil rights.

And then, I wanted to watch The Bodyguard starring the late Whitney Houston and my favorite man ever, Kevin Costner.  This film is not overtly about interracial dating or civil rights.  But the relationship portrayed by Houston and Costner was something special.  It transcended race.  As I listened to Kevin Costner's eulogy at Houston's funeral on Saturday, my respect for him grew.  His producers tried to talk him out of casting Houston for the role.  They told him that he could find a white actress.  But he wanted Houston.  Not because she was black.  But because the color of her skin didn't matter.

But...I couldn't get The Bodyguard on Netflix Instant, so I had to go with another Kevin Costner period piece (because come on, he's pretty great).  So I watched The War.  I remember watching this 1994 film set in the post-Vietnam War South when I was younger.  But this weekend, I was struck by the relationship between Costner's on screen children and the African American children in their small Mississippi town.  Segregation still ruled the town and surely citizens must have looked down at their family for allowing the children to play with blacks.  It made me wonder, what kinds of decisions would I have made if I lived then.  Would I have gone on freedom rides?  Would I have been able to sit at that lunch counter?  Would I have dated a black man?  Or would I have played it safe?  I'd like to think that I would have taken a stand for what I believe in.  I'd like to think that I would have been as brave as Katharine Houghton's character in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  And this February, I am thankful for those who did take a stand and broke down barriers. Thankful for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Fannie Lou Hamer.  Stokely Carmichael. W.E.B. DuBois.  Medgar Evers.

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