Remember when Barack Obama was elected President and there was all this buzz about a, “post-racial America?” Obviously, the reports of racism’s demise were greatly exaggerated. There is a lot of talk now about how race relations have only become worse under Obama’s Administration but I’m not buying it. Our problems were right under the surface all along. With the greatest problem being that we still believe in race as a concept; we still accept it as a biological fact, despite the evidence to the contrary.
For awhile now I’ve been thinking about this subject – long before the recent shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the sniper attack on Dallas Police – but I haven’t felt compelled to say something about it until now. I thought I might write about some of the books I recently listened to: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. All provided to be food for interesting thoughts but ultimately they mostly confirmed the slow and difficult nature of change.
Since I’m a movie guy at heart I’ll focus on a couple films I recently watched: 42 (2013) about Jackie Robinson and Race (2016) about Jesse Owens. On the one hand, both films are extremely depressing. This is what human beings are really like. Fearful, hateful, stubbornly immune to reason and willfully ignorant of the facts. On the other hand these films are inspiring, because men had to come out of this context and these limitations and choose to fight against them for something better to emerge.
Both movies are worth watching but, in terms of production value, Race is the better film. It also has a more complex problem. Robinson being put through hell for joining the “white man’s” sport of professional baseball is a no brainer; any semi-reasonable person in the light of hindsight can easily see how wrong that was. But Owens choosing to go to Nazi Germany to compete in the Olympics isn’t such a simple call. In the end the movie makes you feel great about the fact that a so-called “inferior race” beat the finest the “Aryans” had to offer. The film also makes a strong case that it was the right decision for American athletes to attend the games, but American participation gave a stamp of legitimacy to Hitler’s regime that can’t be understated. What the film doesn’t show is the fact that the Germans did very well at the games, overall, and the event was largely a PR success story for the Nazis; presenting them as a legitimate form of government, rather than a nation ruled by criminal thugs. (I also found the portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to be too sympathetic but that’s another matter. If you are interested you can learn more about her in my documentary, You don’t know Hitler (2006).)
In the real world it’s often hard to know where to draw the lines. Is this where we should make a stand for what is right? Is this, “what is right?” The answer to such questions can be difficult but the hardest part is that so many people seem unwilling to even ask themselves these questions; they simply react (e.g. They know automatically that every police shooting of a black man was unjustified murder, or they are equally convinced that anyone who gets shot must have deserved it, with no middle ground to be discussed between these extremes).
Both Owens’ and Robinson’s stories center around one of the largest gravitational events in history and a subject of great fascination to me, the Second World War. I believe the dramatic changes we have been able to achieve in our attitudes about race today stem largely from that cataclysmic catalyst. The evil nature of categorizing human beings into arbitrary racial groups was graphically illustrated by Nazi Germany and their Imperial Japanese allies. After that, the injustice of American hypocrisy – proclaiming that “all men are created equal” while denying that all people are “men” – became unsustainable. We have struggled since then to “accept” all races but what we really need is to accept the fact that there is only one race. The big question is: How do we get there?
There is a great piece of wartime propaganda that I love; a simple poster of a black man and a white man working together to save America, with the message, “United We Win,” below them.
It is easy to be a cynic and dismiss this as a lie, given the fact that America was far from a united and equal society at the time, but the purpose of propaganda is to propagate a particular faith, and it speaks to the core of what that faith is all about. I think Americans need to be reminded today that we are still in this together and we need to be inspired to find reasons to be united, rather than divide ourselves. Arguably, films like 42 and Race are a new form of propaganda that may help get this message across and renew our faith in the land of the free and the home of the brave, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep hitting people over the head with these things.
There is another contemporary of Owens and Robinson who is in need of a good biopic, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. I see that veteran actor and filmmaker Bill Duke is trying to pull the funding together for a production on this subject that would be exactly the kind of story people need to hear and I hope he is able to pull it off.
I’ve been a fan of Louis since I was a little kid and my dad first told me about him. My dad served in the Army Big Band during World War II, backing up famous entertainers and celebrities who were visiting the troops in the field to keep morale up. Louis was the only famous figure my dad met who he had photographic proof of. Louis, if you can’t tell, is the guy pretending to conduct the band. My dad is the one with glasses on the saxophone.
Dad loved to tell the story of what a great guy the champ was and how he actually hung out with them, as one of the guys, and didn’t act like a big shot. In fact, when a soldier was sent to summon Louis to come have dinner with the officers, Louis brushed him aside, saying something like, “You tell them I’m not leaving until I’m ready.” He felt at home with them and they felt the same way. Thinking back on all the times my dad told me about this I can’t recall a single time in which color ever came into the story.
My dad was no civil rights activist but he also never disparaged anyone. I’m grateful that he taught me to judge people as people – as who they are, individually – and it’s something I’m actively trying to impart to my son. It is my hope that he will actually live to see the post-racial promisedland that Americans have so long been dreaming of, but at least I know he won’t be one of the people standing in our way of getting there.