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MLK Weekend: A Reflection on Race through Film

In 2017, the Byrd Theatre will begin celebrating many holidays through film. None may incite more emotion and reflection this year than Martin Luther King Day.

We tribute Dr. King’s legacy, and what he stood for, through four varied perspectives on race told through film.

Sunday, January 15th:

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, 2 PM ($5)
Five years after MLK’s I Have a Dream speech, and just six months after ruling on Loving v. Virginia, this 1967 film presents an interracial couple’s announcement to both sets of parents and their plans for marriage.

Race, 4:30 PM (FREE)
The story of Jesse Owen’s quest to become the greatest track and field Olympian, and its intersection with the 1936 games in Nazi Berlin – hosted with Community Discussion following the film.

Monday, January 16th:

Selma, 7:15 PM
Many students of the Civil Rights grasp MLK’s leadership, but Selma hones in on the three months leading to that climactic and violent event [beginning their march to Montgomery] – whose graphic imagery incited such public outrage, Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act without hesitation.

Do The Right Thing, 9:30 PM
A young Spike Lee abruptly matures from his first two features when Do The Right Thing bluntly tackles racism, immigration, gentrification, and police brutality. A film “about race in America that empathized with all the participants,” describes Roger Ebert, with erie resonance today.

ANALYSIS

About Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Pulitzer-winning journalist, Wesley Morris, reveres the film, “The bravery of Stanley Kramer’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ amounted to two Hollywood legends – Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy – telling the world that a black son-in-law is something they can live with, and so should you, especially if he looks like Sidney Poitier and has degrees.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner came out in 1967, 5 years post MLK’s I Have a Dream speech but released just six months after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, that all laws which banned interracial marriages violated the United States Constitution.

A quote at a climax of tension among the families, finds John (Sidney Poitier) in a poignant monologue with his father, “…I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

Hal Erickson of All Movie Guide surmizes the film, “Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union. To complicate matters, the older couple’s disapproving maid (Isabel Sanford) and Christina’s bigoted business associate (Virginia Christine) put in their two cents’ worth.

While Joey is determined to go ahead with the wedding no matter what people think, John refuses to consider marriage until he receives the unqualified approval of all concerned. The closing monologue delivered by Spencer Tracy turned out to be the last scene ever played by the veteran film luminary, who died not long after the production. The film was a success in the racially volatile year of 1967 and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won for Hepburn and screenwriter William Rose.”

About Race

Presented By HandsOn Greater Richmond, The Center For Inclusive Communities & The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement – Free, with facilitated Community Discussion following the film. 

Race is a story about overcoming incredible adversity to accomplish world history. But if you asked Jesse Owens, he would say he was only interested in being the best on the track.

Redeye Chicago summarizes, “[The story of] Jesse Owens, whose pursuit of Olympic track-and-field gold intersected with the 1936 games in Berlin, where for a while the U.S. considered boycotting due to the rise of the murderous Third Reich. Owens, who was black, also received pressure to stay home to make a statement against the white-supremacist beliefs of Adolf Hitler and Nazism—it’s no spoiler (this happened 80 years ago, after all) to say that Owens decided to compete and took home four gold medals (and became best friends with a German runner), solidifying his status as the fastest person on the planet at the time.”

In a recent interview, star Stephan James said, “You look at a story like ‘Selma’ [in which James also appeared] and you go, ‘That’s not just black history. Martin Luther King didn’t just affect black people; he affected people all over the world,” the 22-year-old, Toronto-native actor says at the Park Hyatt. “And it’s the same thing with Jesse Owens. He’s not a black hero. He’s not an American hero. He’s a world hero. I look at it as they’re so much bigger than black icons.”

Owens later wrote about the experience, “My whole life was wrapped up, summed up – and stopped up – by a single incident: my confrontation with the German dictator, Adolf Hitler, in the 1936 Olympics. The lines were drawn then as they had never been drawn before or since. The Germans were […] coming to represent everything that free people have always feared.”

“If I could just win those gold medals, I said to myself, the Hitlers of the world would have no more meaning for me. For anyone, maybe.”

New York Times reporter  analyzes the film,

“In addition to its portrayal of the complex geopolitics of those games, the movie fixes a spotlight on Owens’s athletic discipline — his grit, grace, genius — as he pursues Olympic glory. Through its focused depiction on his triumph (in the face of second-class citizenship at home), the film offers us yet another Owens, one who pursued black excellence as a powerful counterpunch to Hitler’s racist logic.

‘There is a belief among some African-Americans that to defeat racism, they have to work harder, be smarter, be better,’ the poet Claudia Rankine wrote in her profile of Serena Williams for The New York Times Magazine in August. “Only after they give 150 percent will white Americans recognize black excellence for what it is.”

Ms. Rankine added, ‘But of course, once recognized, black excellence is then supposed to perform with good manners and forgiveness in the face of any racist slights or attacks.’

Black excellence as a status and strategy is double-edged. To challenge the racism of white segregationists and Aryan supremacists, Owens, and his fellow African-American athletes, including Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson, had to dominate every event they entered. By winning, Owens ultimately proved that his participation in the Olympics contributed more to the cause of racial equality than had he boycotted the games, as the N.A.A.C.P. had proposed.

But with the tight focus on Owens’s Berlin years in Race, ‘you never really get a sense of how fleeting it all was,’ Mr. Shropshire noted.

That the Holocaust and World War II were right on the horizon, while Jim Crow legally reigned for almost 30 more years after Owens’s Olympic victories, proves that one man or one moving image could not stop the tide of history.”

Sources: The Telegraph, Redeye Chicago, New York Times

About Selma:

This film is the story of a movement. It chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement. This film tells the real story of how the revered leader and visionary Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his brothers and sisters in the movement prompted change that forever altered history.

Glen Besa reflects on relevance today, 50 years later, “President Obama led a march of thousands in Selma to commemorate the historic struggle that occurred there 50 years ago and to note that, as he said, “our march is not over.” And, I was proud to march as a member of the Sierra Club, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge alongside politicians, union members, civil rights champions, and concerned citizens, joining not only in the celebration but also in the continued fight to protect voting rights across the United States.

This march was not just a ceremony — it was a call to action. In fact, the Voting Rights Act that the original Selma marchers pushed for in 1965 has been jeopardized by a deeply flawed Supreme Court decision and a series of bills introduced across the country that would suppress the vote of communities of color, seniors, and young people.

In 2013, the Supreme Court decimated a vital portion of the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed federal review of changes to voting laws on a state level. The Court declared this law was somehow outdated, putting the onus on Congress to update it. As Congress has sat idly by, many state legislatures took the loss of oversight as an opportunity to go back in time to the pre-Selma era, when obstacles to the ballot were numerous and the constitutional ability to vote for millions was severely limited.  In fact, since the recent Court decision, 41 state legislatures have introduced 180 pieces of legislation to limit voting rights.  And of course, Congress has been deadlocked when it comes to updating and fixing the Voting Rights Act.”

Sources: Google, Sierra Club Blog

About Do the Right Thing:

At 28, Spike Lee was winning a directing award at Cannes for his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. His graduate senior thesis three years earlier garnered a Student Academy Award. Between shooting on his second feature, sprang a new concept that would become Do the Right Thing.

Matt Haber of MentalFloss writes, “Lee was [now] ready to go bigger. His new film, which he discussed with Dickerson on that flight to Los Angeles, would focus on some of the hottest hot buttons around, including racism, immigration, gentrification, and police brutality.”

In Roger Ebert’s review of the film, “Most movies remain up there on the screen. Only a few penetrate your soul. [Lee did] an almost impossible thing. He made a movie about race in America that empathized with all the participants.”

“In [one] surrealistically close-to-the-bone sequence in which the characters spew their ugliest ethnic slurs, he shows how the same barely suppressed rage festers inside everyone. Lee’s point in including this orgy of racist spleen-venting is to show how easy it would be to spark a full conflagration, and it’s out of this observation that the rest of the movie springs,” wrote Hal Hinson of the Washington Post.

Hinson continues, “The movie runs on emotion, a highly questionable, highly flammable power source. Lee isn’t a politician, and he doesn’t censor himself or make sure that he has all his ideas worked out in his head first. He just tosses them out. As a result, the film is a moral workout. At once a plea for tolerance and a rationale for violent opposition, the film embraces both its patron saints, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, then invites us to hassle out the contradictions.

Do the Right Thing is a movie made by filmmaker working in sync with his times — an exciting, disturbing, provocative film.”

Sources: Mental Floss, Washington Post Archives, RogerEbert.com

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