Racism is the most troubling societal issue, it is the bane of our existence on this space rock, preventing us from becoming more understanding of each other and living in a world free of hatred and suffering. Once, there was no concept of racism at all, not because it did not exist, but because it was not considered to be a problem.
It was accepted as a hard fact of life, just the way things were in the world. In that sense, human kind has evolved to at least acknowledge racism’s existence. This does not mean, however, that we have rid ourselves of this phenomenon that plagues our species.
As cinema has always been reflective of the world, racial issues have been the subject of many a film. Some of the films on the list are outright racist within themselves and exist as an unsightly reminder of how things used to be, and some are almost revolutionary acts that have made us seriously question our own perceptions of equality and race.
Regardless of intention, the following films are important reminders of our strengths and weaknesses as a society, allowing us to view the world as it is, vast and small at the same time, teeming with cultures but also close-mindedness.
These films are listed in chronological order.
1. The Birth of a Nation (1915) – D.W. Griffith
The film follows two American families, the Stonemans of the North and the Camerons from the South. The events take place on the brink Civil War and follow the two families as the sons from each eventually fight on opposite sides.
After the war is won by the North, the film attempts to show the destruction of the supposedly idyllic American life that had been in place prior. As a reaction to the events, one of the Cameron brothers, Ben, forms the Ku Klux Klan and fights against the newly formed authorities lead by a black man named Silas Lynch.
Based on Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s novel The Clansman, this is probably the most racist propaganda film ever made. Up until the 1940s, it had been used as a KKK recruitment video. The majority of black characters who featured repeatedly in the film were played by white actors in “blackface” make-up. Their portrayal of African Americans was one of drunks and brutes, aggressive towards white women, set on destroying white America. A number of stereotypes and unsubstantiated scare tactics feature heavily in the film.
Content aside and based purely on filming techniques, this movie was ahead of its time. It introduced a vast number of filming and photography methods considered incredibly impressive for the era. For this reason alone, it is generally considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made.
2. Song of the South (1946) – Wilfred Jackson & Harve Foster
Little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) and his parents are off to visit grandma at her Georgian plantation. Johnny doesn’t realise that his father will be going back to Atlanta for work while him and his mother, Sally (Ruth Warrick), will be staying in Georgia. He sets off to follow his father with only a bindle in tow but ends up meeting Uncle Remus (James Baskett) instead, a black worker at the plantation.
Uncle Remus tells Johnny a story of Br’er Rabbit and he becomes a regular visitor to Remus’ cabin for more tales. Johnny begins to enjoy his time at the plantation as him and Uncle Remus become friends. Along the way, Johnny meets knew friends (and foes) and with the help of Uncle Remus, overcomes some of the more difficult times in his life.
Uncle Remus stories were African American folk tales compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, a proponent of the New South and reconciliation between races following the U.S. Civil War. The film takes place during the Reconstruction Era, as opposed to before the war, which would have made the workers at the plantation slaves. This is not immediately clear in the film, but there are some details that point to abolition of slavery having taken place already.
As with most films released before major political change took place for the Black Civil Rights movement, the depiction of race and race relations here is problematic. Recognised as a technically and artistically impressive film, it was nonetheless condemned for its portrayal of Uncle Remus as a kindly but uneducated man, sporting a stereotypical dialect, along with the rest of the African American characters in Song of the South.
Black critics were also divided in their opinions on the film, and due to it not making any particularly clear statements about the era in which the events take place, it ran the risk of portraying the master-slave relationships as idyllic.
James Baskett received an honorary Academy Award in 1948 for playing Uncle Remus, but despite this, was unable to attend the film’s premiere in Atlanta due to segregation laws that were still in place there.
3. Shadows (1959) – John Cassavetes
Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) is a light-skinned African American woman who meets Tony (Anthony Ray) at a party. Without realising that Lelia is black, Tony takes her home and only finds out about her race after meeting Leila’s brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd). Lelia senses that Tony is uncomfortable with this, and understandably, gets very upset. The film follows all three siblings, including Lelia’s other brother Ben (Ben Carruthers), as they attempt to make sense of their lives in Beat Era New York City.
Shadows was largely improvised and shot with a 16mm camera on the streets of New York City. Most of the crew were friends who volunteered for the production. Shadows had to be shot twice, once in 1957 and a final time in 1959 as Cassavetes was unhappy with his first try.
At the time of the film’s release, interracial relationships were still a taboo subject and Shadows is widely recognised as a culturally significant feature. Cassavetes captured the Beat Generation era perfectly and is often considered to be one of the first independent American filmmakers.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Robert Mulligan
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a widowed lawyer living in 1930s Alabama with his daughter “Scout” (Mary Badham) and son “Jem” (Phillip Alford). Atticus is an idealist who believes that every man deserves justice and a fair trial, regardless of race and background. He is working on a case defending a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who has been accused of raping and beating a farmer’s daughter.
This attracts unwanted attention from those who believe Tom is guilty and a lynch mob forms in an attempt to punish him. Despite this, Atticus and Tom go to trial with the case. The events are all witnessed by Scout and Jem, and we see the story unfold from their perspective.
The film is based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning 1960 book To Kill A Mockingbird, and both it and the film adaptation are widely considered to be some of the greatest ever made.
As with any film about race relations, it was not necessarily favoured by everyone unanimously. Some felt that its depiction of Atticus Finch and his unwavering moral high ground was a little too saccharine sweet and unrealistic.
5. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Stanley Kramer
Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) shows up at her upper class liberal New Yorker parents’ apartment after a trip to Hawaii. She wants to surprise them with some unexpected news of having met her new fiancé, John (Sydney Poitier), while away on holiday. John is a young and successful doctor with a plethora of achievements behind him at only 37; he is also a black man.
Despite having spent their lives firmly against segregation and for civil rights, Joanna’s parents – played by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy – are clearly challenged by the developments. Their ideals and morals are put to the test as they are faced with making a decision about their daughter’s future and happiness.
It is staggering to think that only months before this film’s release, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states around the USA. It has been criticised for being dated and the storyline too slapstick and humorous to be taken seriously, but it is important to remember how controversial the content would have been at the time. Without making this a lighter watch that can be enjoyed by the masses, it would have been impossible to spread this very serious message effectively.
This was also the last pairing of Hepburn and Tracy in a film, as Tracy died shortly after its release. This makes Tracy’s final speech in the movie and Hepburn’s response to it all the more moving and poignant.
6. Blazing Saddles (1974) – Mel Brooks
Set in the American Old West, this satire tells the story of the town of Rock Ridge. A greedy State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is building a railroad when he realises that the intended route runs straight into quicksand. This means that the railroad will now have to go through Rock Ridge, which is populated by people whose last names are all “Johnson”.
Lamarr sends a group of thugs to the town, which he hopes will in turn make them demand a new sheriff. When they do, he convinces the dim-witted Governor – played by Mel Brooks – to appoint a black man, Bart (Cleavon Little), who is about to be hanged. Lamarr hopes that this development will distress the people of Rock Ridge so much, that they will leave the town of their own accord.
Mel Brooks is definitely one of the best satirists of all time, and this is one of his best. Made in a time when racial tensions were rife and the line between appropriate and derogatory was blurry to say the least, Brooks jumped straight into the deep end of murky territory.
Supported in his choices by Richard Pryor – who is also one of the writers – he refused to budge for Warner Bros. and left all the controversial material in the final cut. This ensured that Blazing Saddles will forever be a unique and important feature, poking fun at the glossed-over portrayal of the Wild West in traditional westerns while also carrying a far more serious message.
7. White Dog (1982) – Samuel Fuller
Julie (Kristy McNichol) accidently hits a white Alsatian dog while driving in the hills. She decides to keep him and becomes attached after the dog saves her from a potential rapist. When the dog attacks some people for no apparent reason, Julie takes him to an animal trainer in the hopes of reforming the critter.
There, an African American trainer, Keys (Tony Brubaker) reveals to her that the animal has been trained as a “white dog” by a racist to only attack black people. He agrees to take on the job and promises to exterminate the dog himself if he does not succeed, much to everyone’s apprehension.
Keys becomes obsessed with retraining the dog, and even after the Alsatian kills an elderly black man, he is adamant about carrying on. We realise that this is a more important mission to him than just saving the animal; he is fighting a war against racism that he has been a part of his whole life. The dog is symbolic of deep-rooted prejudice and hatred and shows the Jekyll and Hyde like mentality of the racist. The dog remains unnamed, and this further embodies it as a walking breathing metaphor.
Paramount did not want the film to be overtly associated with the issue of racism and were more inclined toward a horror about a pooch that loves its owner but randomly attacks others. Samuel Fuller was a proponent of integration and spent much time focussed on racial issues, and when the film’s final release was halted by the studio due to controversy, he left the USA for France and never made another American film again.
8. Hairspray (1988) – John Waters
The film stars a young Ricki Lake as Tracy, a teenager living in Maryland, Baltimore in 1962. She loves dancing and together with a friend, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) auditions for a popular TV dance show, The Corny Collins Show. Despite being bigger than the other contestants, Tracy wins a regular spot. She begins modelling and is encouraged to bleach and tease her hair, sporting big 1960s hairstyles.
When Tracy gets in trouble at school for her outrageous hair, she is sent to a special needs class where she encounters some black students who are being held back academically on purpose. They introduce Tracy to Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown), who is the host of The Corny Collins Show’s monthly “Negro Day” as well as a record store owner. Together with their new friends, Tracy and Penny embark on a mission to fight racial segregation.
This was one of John Waters’ more mainstream productions, with most of his previous films being too explicit to gain anything other than an X rating. Divine played Tracy’s mother and it was to be his last role and the only Waters film where he wasn’t a lead. Originally, Divine was supposed to play both the mother and daughter, but the idea was not popular with the executives.
A number of notable personalities appear in the film, among them Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono. Waters based the dance show on the real life Buddy Deane Show and the racial tensions discussed in the film were inspired by real events occurring in Maryland, Baltimore around the late 1950s and early 1960s.