Jesse Owens deserves a biopic. His life was important and dramatic, and it even lends itself to a narrative arc—especially the period that served as the basis for Race, the recent film that follows the track-and-fielder as he faced prejudice and eventual triumph in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His story is undeniably worth telling, but the film follows a path that’s become sadly standard for major Hollywood films about racism. Before Race, there was 42 and Get On Up, two other simplifications of key figures (Jackie Robinson and James Brown), to say nothing of The Help, which reduced the civil rights movement to the story of a white woman’s self-realization.
All four films—directed by white men—are desperate to not rattle any cages; their depictions of racism are family friendly, never risking the boundaries of their PG-13 ratings. They’re uplifting period films, which paints the impression of American racism being a relic from the past, long since fixed. The examples they show of prejudice are more like window dressing than an atmosphere of hate, so cartoonish that it becomes perversely appropriate that The Help’s solution to it is a scatological comeuppance.
These films depict racism as a kind of bullying, something easily overcome by the talent of the heroes (not, it should be noted, their qualities as people). In Get On Up, there’s a scene suggesting that the power of Brown’s music is single-handedly enough to convince racists of their wrong-headedness. That’s mirrored by a moment in Race where an initially hostile crowd starts cheering for Owens when he completes a hat trick of world records. The film, to its credit, doesn’t pretend like the Olympics changed the way Owens was treated (though the final note is one of progress, not prejudice), but it makes a clear distinction between America and the real racists in Nazi Germany. Over there, Jews are herded into trucks. Here, there are just a couple of asshole jocks in a locker room. It doesn’t dare make more potent parallels—say, between the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan—while the White House’s snub of Owens is relegated to closing-credits post-script, lest it spoil the film’s otherwise inspirational slant.
In Race, Owens (played by Stephan James) remarks that “there’s no black and white; there’s just fast and slow.” The line is meant to explain the appeal racing has for him, but it’s hard to not see it as anything other than a sop to white audiences, who might otherwise feel implicated by this part of American history. (“There’s no white privilege, there’s just fast and slow!”) Given that Race is set in a time when Owens wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in much of the country, and could have faced mortal danger for rubbing someone the wrong way, there was plenty of black and white at play. One of the most important lessons of Owens’ life is how after the Olympics he was limited with the options available to him in his era. Race skips this completely, instead shoehorning him into the inspirational message of “the American people need champions to remind them what they’re capable of” (the line that opens the film’s trailer). That misses the point of Owens’ story just as badly as Get On Up missed the point of James Brown; they’re almost offensive in their attempts to not offend.
This kind of simplification is the frustrating thing about Race, and about race as a topic for Hollywood. One can’t really argue that studios are ignoring prejudice as a subject, as several films have been made over the past 10 years that take it as a central theme, but the stories Hollywood chooses to tell about it are revealing.
Consider the recent wide-release films that have taken racism as a major theme; in addition to the ones mentioned above, there’s Straight Outta Compton, Selma, 12 Years A Slave, Django Unchained, The Butler, and The Great Debaters. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that those are all period films, especially since that pattern holds for looks at gay rights or—far more rarely—sexism (Carol, Dallas Buyers Club, Milk, Suffragette, The Imitation Game, Stonewall, North Country, Brokeback Mountain). Is Hollywood so desperate to avoid anything that could be construed as offensive or controversial that it confines stories of prejudice to the past? When you consider that Black Or White, the Kevin Costner flop about a custody battle, is pretty much the only recent studio film that looks at race in modern America in a serious way, it certainly looks like it.
That’s a glaring blind spot for America cinema, especially given how important these issues remain today. Hollywood has bigger problems when it comes to representing diverse viewpoints and lives, but period pieces that end on notes of uplift just reinforce the idea that prejudice is something from the past that has been solved. You don’t have to look far to see that’s not the case.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the movies listed above. Many of them are good, some are great, and the stories are worth telling, especially since they’ve filled in some of cinema’s biggest historical omissions. Because Gone With The Wind remains the most widely seen depiction of American slavery, and it presents it as a fulfilling job devoid of pain or tragedy, 12 Years, Django, and the upcoming The Birth Of A Nation are correctives both necessary and long overdue. It’s important to tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nat Turner, just as it’s important to give Alan Turing or the Stonewall riot greater historical visibility.
And of course, stories of the past can be a useful way to examine the present. Just as there’s something to be said for immediacy, there’s also something to be said for perspective, and a lot of period films are effective not just because they tell their own story well, but because they illuminate the present, whether in a “look how far we’ve come” way, or a “look how little things have changed” one. Certainly it was impossible to watch Milk in 2008 and not think about the movement to legalize gay marriage (Slate even argued that had the film been released earlier in California, the state’s anti-gay Proposition 8 would’ve failed, though it’s debatable how many opponents to gay rights would’ve gone to see it), just as Selma and Compton carry vivid parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement (it must just be a coincidence that these films had black directors, just as Milk’s Gus Van Sant is gay). But at a time when these topics are so heated, it’s pathetic that prejudice isn’t being discussed onscreen in the present tense. Compare Hollywood’s recent output to TV like The Carmichael Show, Black-ish, Inside Amy Schumer, or Orange Is The New Black, all of which mine these issues in the present day for comedy and drama. It can be done, if Hollywood would just do it. (Compton demonstrates the demand that exists for these stories.)
This timidity is new. 1967’s In The Heat Of The Night frankly considered the state of racial prejudice in then-modern America, and was a huge success, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. That same year, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, dated though it is when viewed today, was an earnest argument for the acceptance of interracial relationships—a controversial, even dangerous idea at the time. It was one of the highest grossing of the decade.
Even after Hollywood became focused on blockbusters, studios looked where society was failing to live up to American ideals. Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever was a wide release, as were Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon and Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities. (Not a good movie, but at least one gunning for immediacy.) On the crowd-pleasing front, Philadelphia used the packaging of a legal procedural to look at homophobia and AIDS, as A Time To Kill did with race. Race was even woven throughout Die Hard With A Vengeance, where it was a secondary theme, but an important one.
That acknowledgment of these issues in the present is what’s missing today. Audiences sitting down to watch Whoopi Goldberg’s The Associate were exposed to its assertion that a black woman wouldn’t receive the success or respect of a white man, no matter what her abilities. They couldn’t brush off the issue as one repaired by time and progress, the way audiences for Suffragette could, even with the political environment Suffragette was released into.
Exceptions to period films now—that is, films about social issues set in the present—are not only rare, but confined to micro-release: Dear White People, Fruitvale Station, Freeheld, Love Is Strange, In A World…, Tangerine, and Pariah. The combined gross of all those? $28.1 million. (There’s also the thematically related Chi-Raq, which moved to Amazon Prime after a nominal theatrical release.) Among the films that actually got a distribution and publicity push, there’s what? The exploitation of Machete? Jokes in the Harold & Kumar movies? The decade-old Crash?
That’s a sorry lineup, especially compared to more politically minded work coming out on the small screen. And if you take it that art should endeavor to hold a mirror up to society, then shouldn’t it follow that the reflection should be of who we are now, and not just who we were?