H Jonathan Klijn
HARVARD GOVT E-1313: Race, Film, and American Politics
Dr. Gloria Y.A. Ayee
May 14, 2022
Group membership affects life’s opportunities, and as a result, we are likely to consider the group when making political—and personal—decisions. Our fates are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, as most of the films mentioned in this article illustrate, structures of white supremacy still strive to assert unequal racial hierarchy.
Thematically, Mississippi Burning (1988) and Selma (2014) share aspects of temporality, and location. But that’s not all. Both dwell on the foundational concepts of group dynamics as presented by the everyday Black folk and their leaders alike. And resignation to the fact that suffering for the greater good of your group, is noble. Even expected.
Mississippi Burning shows multi-faceted and layered moments of what we may interpret as linked fate, sometimes in unexpected iterations. It illustrates the disconnect when white folk misunderstand and discount linked fate, while nonetheless leaning into it to further their agenda. In one scene, FBI Special Agent Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe), a man dedicated to helping Black people achieve justice, enters a segregated diner and finds no space to sit, save for some seats in the Black section. He willingly ignores cultural expectation when he insists on seating himself next to a young Black man. Ward assumes an air of white nobleness, in the way white efforts to alleviate Black plight often does. And so, various textures of fate, both linked and causal, show up.
The young Black man is petrified. He defaults to a group dynamic: that silence is the only viable option, protecting himself and shielding his community. Despite this, but not entirely unexpected, the man Ward attempted to engage, is later attacked by Klansmen. His suffering is both a personal lesson, and a message to the larger group.
What is significant about the scene is how whiteness, although not invested in linked fate per se, seems able to weaponize aspects of linked fate with alacrity. And ignore it, when suitable. The Klan cherry-picks tenets of linked fatewhen it makes examples, perpetuates fear, and signals contempt, a tradition captured during Willie Lynch’s 1712 “The Making of a Slave” speech on the banks of Virginia’s James River, when he outlines the control of enslaved people within the colony (Lynch).
Special Agent Ward, however, is less overtly toxic in his manipulation and ignorance of implied group dynamics. Ward’s action in the diner is ideologically admirable, but unrealistic and dangerous for the recipient of his savior tendencies. He refuses to “read the room,” instead acting in a way that is hazardous to the health of others.
Considering “ideologies that represent real aspects of social existence, such as race relations and stereotypes,” Ward’s devotion is an expression of white guilt. He explains that “anyone’s guilty who watches [segregation] happen and pretends it isn’t.... He was just as guilty as the fanatics who pulled the trigger. Maybe we all are.” Linked fate indeed. Ward represents helpless white liberalism; feeling guilty for how Black folk are treated, while not accepting culpability. He stands outside the circle, looking in.
In this sense, Mississippi Burning (1988) echoes Glory (1989). Observing Black soldiers at Christmas while in training, Matthew Broderick, as real-life figure Colonel Robert G. Shaw, muses that “Try as I may. I don’t know these men. Their music, their camaraderie, which is different from ours.” Indeed. Nothing sums up this disconnect better.
One could argue that, on some level at least, racial stereotypes and tropes are steeped in fear of the boogeyman that is miscegenation. Most visible would be the stereotype of the Black buck, Gus in The Birth of a Nation (1915) for example, who, through sheer virility and musculature, provides much fodder for sexualization and fetishization, playing to the “turn-of-the century racist tract, ‘The Negro [is] a Beast.’” This figure amplifies pre-existing white tensions around sexual shortcomings and, especially for cisgender heterosexual men, presents a particularly potent trigger.
The tragic mulatto, “born out of a mixed-race marriage or sexual union,” is deserving of whatever calamity is bestowed on her, purely because of her unacceptable provenance. And, in a shrewd move by director D.W. Griffith, before tragedy overcomes the tragic mulatto, Lydia Brown in The Birth of a Nation will also reveal herself as a viper, her duplicity of character a manifestation of her duplicitous birth. The tragic mulatto stereotype is cast as a betrayal to both races.
But the miscegenation mindset does not end with young bucks and beautiful flawed-yet-fallen women. The Mammy figure, dependable and omnipresent, is consistently de-sexualized. As is “trusty” Uncle Tom. And Stepin Fetchit, to a certain extent. There seems to be a direct link between being present and tolerated, and being as non-confrontational in a physical sense, as humanly possible. Their goodness, linked to their sheer lack of sexual threat.
Things get complicated, however when, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Sidney Poitier arrives. It is clear that, over the fifty years between The Birth of a Nation and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the political landscape had shifted seismically. It is significant that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner coincides with Loving v Virginia (1967), the unanimous Supreme Court decision deeming anti-miscegenation statutes to violate both “Due Process” and “Equal Protection Clauses” embodied by the Fourteenth Amendment.
From the outset of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier represents a marked departure from previous tropes of Black men, especially handsome ones. He only fleetingly resembles the Black buck trope, before the character is established as a designer suit-wearing medical professional—he saves lives in Africa—who offers to pay for phone calls lest he burdens the household.
Poitier is presented as a sanitized Black buck, so calibrated and modulated that he becomes linked fate incarnated, selfless, and fully invested in group consciousness and sage wisdom. The message by 1967 has become, that, although now legal, miscegenation is a thing best left to specimens of such excellence that only the very worst and jaded would object. Poitier’s professional persona lends such an air of “specialness” to his Blackness that he is virtually neutered and de-sexualized.
But, it is perhaps Tillie, played by Isabel Sanford, who shows the most revealing reaction when witnessing an intimate exchange between Poitier and his white love interest. Tillie’s exclaiming that “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself,” before continuing that “Civil Rights is one thing. This here is somethin’ else,” shows the legacy of race-based messaging. It underlines that tropes and stereotypes are not mere warning signals designed for interpretation by one group, and that for anti-miscegenation to work and be effective, Black Americans had to be convinced as well.
Whites have long held sociocultural, political, and economic power in the United States. It is a power that is, however, rapidly eroding. As with all loss, attempts at explaining why or how it occurs, are inevitable. Film contributes to the creation of mythology designed to explain the erosion of white power, while suggesting sites of conflict.
But to only consider gaslights such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) would be to overlook insidious messaging in films otherwise deemed accurately representational and observant of historic fact. Mississippi Burning (1988) presents binary opposites illustrating cinematic amnesia, arguing that white power has been overcome thanks to those who help Black people (Agent Ward) against those who hinder Black progress (Deputy Pell and Sheriff Stuckey). Mississippi Burning is less history, and more an attempt at explaining how whiteness hemorrhages power, while still pandering to a white yearning for superiority in the shape of its savior-like potential. White superiority does not need a hood. It thrives in smugness too.
Mississippi Burning suggests that whites achieve justice for Black people. The Help (2011) peddles the same thing. Selma (2014) stands apart, avoiding treatment of heroic Black figures as props in a morality tale. Of course, African American directors—in Selma’s case, Ava DuVernay—take great pains to do that. But, left in the hands of white directors, Black characters—all of them minor roles in Mississippi Burning—are frequently presented as sacrificial lambs, avoiding the truth that Black southerners were not just victims but at the core of Civil Rights in the 1960s. In both Mississippi Burning and The Help, Black characters recall Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, relegated to being facilitators of whiteness.
Similarly, Glory (1989), leaves the viewer wanting. In his review, Roger Ebert asks: “Why does the top billing in this movie go to a white actor? I ask, not to be perverse, but because I consider this primarily a story about a Black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes” (Ebert).
Indeed, Glory relies on letters from Colonel Robert G. Shaw as plot device unfolding through the perspective of an upper-class white man, while avoiding integrated perspectives from enlisted Black men. Glory presents northern race relations as rosy. Prejudiced, but without virulence. It encourages a Black-helplessness narrative of salvation and personhood only achieved through voluntary participation in white-dominated structures such as the military.
Mythology communicates cultural dilemmas while proposing solutions. The dilemma asserted in much of American cinema over the last century is one of whiteness losing agency. The solution has primarily been to mediate binary opposites by stereotyping one; and mythologizing the other.
When it comes to fictionalizing historical narrative, it bears mentioning that sans imagination, inventions, and made-up emotions, historical film can hardly be made. Even historians putting pen to paper express themselves through words, descriptive clauses, and theoretical concepts, and, so, much of written history—like film—is representational. Film is equipped to portray emotions and experiences with no written equal. Film illustrates concepts, complementing and enriching written text. It follows then that, when dealing with cinema, Friedrich Nietzsche’s advice, that “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture,” may have to be heeded.
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, https://na03.alma.exlibrisgroup.com/view/BookReaderViewer/01HVD_INST/122531389220003941#.
Child, David. Tired of Muslim ‘Terrorists’, Charity Tackles Cinema Stereotypes | Cinema News | Al Jazeera. 13 Apr. 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/13/uk-charity-tackles-muslim-stereotypes-on-screen.
Christensen, Terry, and Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. https://www.routledge.com/Projecting-Politics-Political-Messages-in-American-Films/Haas-Christensen-Haas/p/book/9780765635976. Accessed 14 Mar. 2022.
Dyer, Richard. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. Psychology Press, 2002.
Ebert, Roger. “Glory Movie Review & Film Summary (1989): Roger Ebert.” Movie Review & Film Summary (1989) | Roger Ebert, Freddie Fields, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/glory-1989.
Gallagher, Brian. “Racist Ideology and Black Abnormality in the Birth of a Nation.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 43, no. 1, 1982, pp. 68–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/274600. Accessed 13 May 2022.
Hirabyashi, Lane Ryo, and Jun Xing. Reversing the Lens: Ethnicity, Race, Gender, and Sexuality through Film. University Press of Colorado, Published by University Press of Colorado, United States, 2003, https://www.abebooks.com/9780870817250/Reversing-Lens-Ethnicity-Race-Gender-0870817256/plp.
Lynch, William. The Willie Lynch Letter; the Making of a Slave. Lushena Books, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen: Aus Dem Nachlaß 1873-1875. Kröner, 1923.
Rosenstone, Robert A (2001): ‘The Historical Film: Looking at the Past in a Postliterate Age’ in Marcia Landy (ed)
 Glenn and Cunningham (2009: 136) 4
 Gallagher (1982: 72)
 Benshoff and Griffin (2021: 79)
 Benshoff and Griffin (2021: 83)
 Benshoff and Griffin (2021: 87)
 Christensen and Haas (2005: 239)
 Hirabyashi and Xing (2003: 16)
 Nietzsche (1923: 28)