Movies are a big part of American cultural life and also one of the country's biggest cultural exports. As a result, movies play an important role in how Americans see themselves, including in attitudes to race. Here Professor Greg Garrett of Baylor University—film historian, cultural theologian and author of A Long, Long Way: Hollywood's Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation—talks us through five movies that best illustrate how Hollywood has evolved in terms of race over the past century, from Gone with the Wind to Get Out.
You’re a film historian and a cultural theologian and in 2020, you published a book called A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. On Five Books, people normally recommend books but, in this case, it seems more constructive to actually watch the movies about race that you discuss in the book. Before we start talking about the movies individually, how important do you think movies are—or how important has Hollywood been—in terms of defining attitudes to race?
To start generally, I think one of the biggest ways that we make sense of our experience and understand our lives is through story. We tell our own stories, we listen to other people’s stories and there are lots of different ways that we get those stories. We get them through the news and through social media, we get them through novels.
But I think film is the most powerful storytelling medium, because it’s multivalent: it operates on us in a lot of different ways. There is the story which can pull us in and carry us along, about characters making ethical choices: bad decisions, good decisions. Those characters are embodied by great actors and actresses. They are surrounded by sets and costumes that are designed to maximize the emotional impact of the story. We have a musical soundtrack and other kinds of sensory input that shape the storytelling experience. It’s a sequential form of storytelling, like a short story or an opera, so we experience it all at once (or at least used to, now, we’ll break it up because we can consume it in lots of different ways). But, at least theoretically, film is a sequential storytelling form with lots of different emotional inputs that we are supposed to experience together. That’s the way that film originally was designed. We would go to a particular place with a group of people and watch this story over the course of an hour and a half or two or three hours (if it’s Gone with the Wind) and we would walk out having had this powerful experience.
And because film is also probably America’s best-known and most popular cultural export, it becomes one of the most important ways that Americans understand the big issues in our lives—whether that’s politics, or race, or religion, or gender and it becomes the way that we transmit what we are currently wrestling with to the rest of the world.
That’s the reason I wanted to dig deep and write a book about it. These are stories that have the power to transform us or to fix us in a set of attitudes as well as being the most popular way of telling stories that Americans have.
In the book you write, “as perhaps our greatest mythmaker, what Hollywood thinks about race does matter.” Can you expand on that?
Most of my nonfiction work is looking at myth in its broadest constructions. As a cultural theologian, I’m interested in the myths that we make in what we typically call ‘secular art,’ as well as in our wisdom traditions. By myth I don’t mean Persephone or Ariadne—made up stories that people use to explain phenomena about nature—I mean the deepest beliefs that we transmit. They are typically not things that we can prove scientifically, but we believe them nonetheless.
“These are stories that have the power to transform us or to fix us in a set of attitudes”
When I talk about Hollywood as a great mythmaker, I’m putting it in the same category as the kind of mythmaking that happens in wisdom traditions where we understand, ‘This is what the Buddha has to say’ or ‘This is what the Prophet has to say.’ When we look at all sorts of literature and culture, there is this powerful sense that mythmaking is going on that is helping us understand who we are. That can reinforce bad myths, but it can also offer life-giving myths. That was one of the dichotomies I came to very early in the process of writing the book.
After you recommended them, I binge-watched all of these movies—well four out of five of them—and it was an incredible experience. Sometimes it was uplifting and I thought, ‘Well, we have made progress.’ Often it was extremely uncomfortable. But they are movies designed to entertain and over the course of ten hours or so I sat on the sofa and I learned a lot. Then, having watched the movies, I really enjoyed reading your book and seeing your analysis of what it all meant and your explanation of where these movies fit into this story of Hollywood and race. It’s been a great experience, so thank you.
Is this how you teach your students—you get them to watch these movies and then discuss the issues about race they raise?
Yes, I’m doing this in the classroom, but I’m also doing a lot of public programs, mostly in the United States, although I did one at the American Cathedral in Paris, where I’m in residence most summers (though not this summer). There’s been a great reaction in both these settings, because they’re challenging stories. They confront us with some really uncomfortable realities—some things from our history that we have to face up to. The title of my book, A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation is intended to represent the tension, because particularly here in the States right now, where millions of people have been marching in the streets, there’s this powerful sense that we have come a long way in our culture and in terms of our history.
We might be about to turn a corner. It does feel to me like we are at an inflection point that I never expected. I don’t know if you follow the American news closely, but earlier this year one of our Deep South states, Mississippi, voted to change its state flag, which has the Confederate battle emblem on it. As I said in an interview recently, I didn’t think if I lived to be 109 years old, I would ever see that happen. The George Floyd murder has been the catalyst for all of these incredible cultural motions that I did not expect to happen anytime soon. In my faith tradition, we are always hoping something good will come out of evil, and that seems to be what we see happening in regard to this violence against Black bodies.
On that hopeful note, let’s go through the movies that you’ve chosen to illuminate Hollywood’s relationship with race. I think you put them in chronological order, shall we go through them in that order?
Yes, that’s a nice progression because we can follow the movement and celebrate the small successes along the way.
Let’s start with Gone with the Wind (1939). It’s been criticised recently for its very nostalgic view of the American South and how wonderful it all was, which was just not accurate.
As we talk in 2020, it’s been in the news because HBO chose to pull Gone with the Wind from its line-up until it could supply a context for it. It’s really interesting, because the African American scholar they asked to provide a context really said the bare minimum, that slavery was bad and that Gone with the Wind is bad mythology, if you will, that many people still hold to and cling to.
I’m a child of the American South, although I was born in Oklahoma, which doesn’t fit anywhere in our North-South dichotomy; it was originally Indian Territory. But I grew up in Texas and Georgia and North Carolina and I now live in Austin, Texas. The university where I’ve taught for 30 years is a southern institution, and Waco, Texas, where it’s located, is one of the farthest western outposts of the antebellum South. There are mansions of cotton plantations on the banks of the river and Baylor is one of the few antebellum colleges and universities west of the Mississippi. I’m in this strange space where most of my adult life and my growing up years I’ve been swimming in the waters of Southern nostalgia. The official designation for this is ‘the Lost Cause.’ It comes from a number of historians and writers working right after the Reconstruction period that followed the American Civil War.
Black people had made some advances and been given the opportunity not just to be freed from slavery, but to participate in American life. And as we see in Gone with the Wind, and as we see in Birth of a Nation—another film I write about at some length in my book—during the Reconstruction period there was an attempt to roll back those advances. Part of the mythology behind that was trying to create this myth of the great, noble Lost Cause. Early on in Gone with the Wind, there’s talk about this romantic, idyllic life that was tragically lost. It’s almost identical to the words used early on in Birth of a Nation. I pair those films together, even though they’re 25 years apart, because the same ideology is operating in both of them. You’ve got this nostalgia for the noble South, for the chivalric soldiers, for the lady-like feminine ideal.
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The other piece of mythology that has to go along with that is you have to find a way to justify keeping people in bondage. I’m going to pull a book off the shelf behind me, but there’s a classic book on racism in American film by Donald Bogle. The title is tremendously offensive but necessary: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films. Basically, what he’s doing in this book is tracing all of the different stereotypes of Blackness that have appeared in American film. Almost every one of those stereotypes gets represented in Gone with the Wind. We’ve got coons and pickaninnies—people who are childlike and really need a master to keep them safe and fed and warm. We’ve got an Uncle Tom character, who’s called Uncle Peter in the film.
It’s really important to identify these two duelling mythologies that Gone with the Wind presents, so that we can have a conversation about this powerful and, honestly, really beautiful film. The cinematography is amazing, that sweeping musical theme just catches your heart. But we have to identify that this film is one of the great mythmakers about the Lost Cause of the South and one of the great perpetuators of the idea that Black people are not fully human.
I write in my book, A Long, Long Way, that we want to celebrate what goes well as well as acknowledge the harmful things, and one of the great achievements of the film is that Hattie McDaniel brings a dignity and a humanity to her role as Mammy. This is a stereotypical role that we see all the way through American film—from Birth of a Nation to Get Out—it’s the character that James Baldwin called ‘the faithful retainer.’ Like Sam in Casablanca, Mammy in Gone with the Wind is a minor role, but she is a character who pushes back against the lead characters in the film and in some ways makes their growth possible. It’s not Hattie McDaniel’s character’s story. It’s not Dooley Wilson’s character’s story in Casablanca, but they both have a humanity and a dignity to them.
And, as you know, Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Academy Award. The story behind that is bracing. The awards were given out in a segregated hotel and she had to sit at the back of the room and then came forward to accept her award.
I knew she was the first African American to win an Academy Award, but that part of the story I did not know. It’s mentioned less.
We do want to celebrate every movement forward. There’s a great book on racism, Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. One of the things that I admire about the book is that it points out that instead of this idea of racial progress that people like me—and possibly you—have held, that we are on this ascending climb towards justice, it’s more ‘one step forward, one step back’ because it’s an action/reaction. We elect a Black president and then a bunch of white people freak out and we get the most racist president of my lifetime.
It’s worth mentioning—as you do in your book—that adjusted for inflation, Gone with the Wind is the top-grossing movie of all time, suggesting it must have been incredibly influential in shaping public attitudes to race.
One of the really startling things is that when you look at Birth of a Nation from 1915 and Gone with the Wind from 1939, adjusted for inflation these are two of the top-grossing films. You have Titanic, but then trailing in the asterisks are these films that had this incredible cultural currency and were seen by millions and millions of people. That is a really important thing to note, because we’re not just talking about a critical success. We’re talking about a blockbuster film before we had that category for films. Everybody had seen Gone with the Wind, everybody was talking about Gone With the Wind. The simple act of casting Scarlett O’Hara was a one-year news bonanza and the fact that Vivien Leigh was cast was a scandal, because she was British, not a homegrown southern belle. Then there were Olivia de Havilland and Leslie Howard, because David O Selznick also just wanted Hollywood royalty in the film and many of those happened to be British. There’s this very strong sense that—like Get Out, which we’ll talk about in a minute—this is one of those films that dominated cultural discourse at the time it was out.
“Most of my adult life and my growing up years I’ve been swimming in the waters of Southern nostalgia. The official designation for this is ‘the Lost Cause’”
So, when we talk about ways that films can reinforce harmful mythology or establish more progressive mythology, this is a film that does both. It’s about 90 per cent of one and 10 per cent of the other. People who watched Gone with the Wind were confirmed in a lot of their beliefs, particularly people in the South. One of my early mothers-in-law—I’ve had a couple—her entire life was devoted to Gone with the Wind. She had been shaped by it as a girl and she was Scarlett O’Hara for good and ill, the strength of character and the petulance.
It’s not a movie from our past. It’s still a movie that we’re debating and wrestling with. I put Gone with the Wind in the same category as the Confederate monuments and statues that we are talking about and sometimes dismantling in the United States right now. I was on National Public Radio a few weeks ago and they asked me, ‘Should we continue to watch this film?’ And I said, ‘Yes, absolutely. We should continue to watch it, but with the content warnings. Be aware that this is what is happening in the background, so that you’re not sucked into the harmful myths that this film so dramatically and powerfully portrays.’
In your book you describe Birth of a Nation as perhaps the most influential motion picture of all time, but that’s now watched less, is that right, because it’s so bad in terms of its portrayal of race?
Almost nobody shows or schedules it. It appears occasionally on American cable television, on one of the classic channels, but there are protests every time that it does. As I write in the introduction to my book, it’s a film that I show regularly in class. It’s partly because it’s a really successful cinematic experience, and partly because, in most of my film classes these days, we are going to emphasize race throughout the semester. It’s like, ‘Here is our lowest point. Let’s start with this.’
Henry Louis Gates, the great African American historian at Harvard University, has talked about how Birth of a Nation is the epitome of what he calls the ‘Redemption narrative’ in the American South, which was that pushback against every advance that had happened for former slaves. It embodies all of those attitudes of white supremacy. In the book, I write about how people marching in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 were basically carrying the racial ideology of Birth of a Nation into the public sphere 100 years later.
And then the problem with these films—whether it’s Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation (which I haven’t seen)—is that people then think that’s history: that that’s the way it was.
That is a huge problem with Birth of a Nation. Most of the advance publicity for that film talked about its authenticity. One of the famous anecdotes is that it was the first film ever shown in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was a racist (as were most white people in America in the Teens and 20s), and the writer of the novel upon which Birth of a Nation was based, Thomas Dixon, was a classmate of his. From my research, it’s not actually true—it is, again, a myth—but Dixon later advanced the idea that Wilson had said of the film, “It’s like writing history with lightning. My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Wilson was himself a historian. He had written an acclaimed history of the United States and some of the title cards in the silent film Birth of a Nation are drawn from Woodrow Wilson’s A History of the American People. So there is this very powerful sense, when we watch this film and see its incredible production value, that this must have been what it was like. And it is all made up! Birth of a Nation goes to great lengths to try and make you think that it’s history. Gone with the Wind does the same thing, that amazing crane shot pulling up from all the wounded in the railyard in Atlanta. It’s like, ‘it must be exactly what it was like, because why else would they have gone to all this trouble?’ All of those elements make us wrestle with history.
“ I put Gone with the Wind in the same category as the Confederate monuments and statues that we are talking about and sometimes dismantling in the United States right now”
So providing the context for a film like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation—or frankly most of the films that I talk about in the book prior to the Civil Rights era—is essential. We have to we know that these are our fictions. These are mythologies that are successful, dramatic stories. James Baldwin talked about Birth of a Nation as a cinematic masterpiece, which it absolutely is. If it weren’t a cinematic masterpiece, it wouldn’t matter so much. It’s the same with Gone with the Wind. I watched Gone with the Wind again last week, while we were on vacation, to prepare for our talk today, and I just sat there and said, ‘This is beautiful. Look at that shot! Look at the colours of the sunset. And here comes Tara’s theme again.’ That’s why film has to be watched consciously. We have to come in with an awareness of the stories and mythologies that people are trying to promote in them so that we can reflect on them and not be simply carried away by the emotion of the storyteller.
Let’s move on to the next movie you’ve chosen in our discussion of Hollywood and race. This is In the Heat of the Night, which dates from 1967.
It’s a really startling film. I often show Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is also a 1967 film with Sidney Poitier (as well as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). In the book, I write about these two films as representative of this era where Hollywood was trying to put people of colour into leading roles and giving them as much of their dignity as the white writers and filmmakers were capable of. They were represented in a much more profound and humane way.
In the Heat of the Night is really interesting to compare to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is the more popular and more watched film. Not just because Sidney Poitier is in both films, but because many of the things that Sidney Poitier’s character does in In the Heat of the Night are more startling culturally and politically than just the simple, startling trope in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that a black man is dating a white woman.
In the Heat of the Night contains a couple of cultural touchpoints that were so radical for 1967 that I always want to let audiences know about them, because both of these films seem a little bit tame to us, 50+ years later. In the Heat of the Night features Sidney Poitier, an actor from the Bahamas with incredible dignity and beauty and intelligence. I often quote my friend Kelly Brown Douglas in the book. She’s an African American theologian who talks about how her experience of seeing Sidney Poitier on-screen was life-changing for her. This was the first person of colour that she had ever seen in a leading role in a movie in a theatre. Sidney Poitier filled that role for a lot of people in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sidney Poitier’s character is the most intelligent and competent person in the film. It’s a murder mystery on its surface, but the other genre it falls into is it’s a buddy film—or, as James Baldwin would have it, a love story between Sidney Poitier’s Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger’s Mississippi town police chief Gillespie.
“there is this really powerful cultural tidal wave that Sidney Poitier brings into American filmmaking”
There’s a murder of a prominent white businessman, who was going to build a huge factory and bring wealth to this small town. Virgil Tibbs is waiting for a train on the night this businessman is killed, and Chief Gillespie has Tibbs thrown in jail for the murder. Then he discovers that Tibbs is a homicide detective. That’s the conceit of the story and everything proceeds from that. There is a running gag as Chief Gillespie and his men throw a number of suspects into jail who are not the murderer. Over and over again Virgil Tibbs has to say, ‘no, he can’t possibly have done it.’
There is one scene in the film that really stands out for me and stood out for audiences. It was a gasp-worthy moment in 1967. Chief Gillespie and Detective Tibbs go to visit the most prominent white man in town, what we would think of as the plantation owner. He is this decadent person who is breeding orchids in a hothouse. (It’s straight out of Hollywood central casting: ‘What could our bad guy do? He loves orchids. Let’s do that.’) There is a moment where he realizes that Virgil Tibbs is actually interrogating him for the murder and he is incensed. He slaps Virgil Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back. In 1967, particularly in a primarily white audience, they would have sat there and their eyes would have gone wide, because this is a Black power moment. Sidney Poitier was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but he wasn’t thought of as a radical, he was not a black-fist-in-the-air sort of person. But this is a moment in Hollywood films where a Black character says, ‘I will not be treated in this way anymore. You do not have the right to direct violence at me.’ One of the signs that was carried at a lot of the civil rights marches in the 1960s was ‘I am a man,’ and that is basically what this moment is.
The other really powerful moment is at the end of the movie. It becomes clear, during the course of the story, that Chief Gillespie, who is an ardent southern racist, has developed an incredible respect for Tibbs. Chief Gillespie takes Virgil Tibbs to catch the train and carries his bag. And there is this moment between them. James Baldwin says that in a love story, this would be the kiss. At that time, of course, a white man and a black man are not going to kiss at the train station, but it is this moment of acknowledgement of their common humanity and this recognition of the respect that Gillespie has grown to have for Virgil Tibbs.
And so when I look at those films from 1967—In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—there is this really powerful cultural tidal wave that Sidney Poitier brings into American filmmaking, because not only does he embody every positive myth, but he participates in all of these powerful dramatic moments, whether it’s the kiss with his fiancée in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—which had not been done in a mainstream American film—or the slap in In the Heat of the Night. The film also won best picture and Rod Steiger won best actor at the Academy Awards that year. It’s another of these films that had incredible cultural currency, not just because it was seen by a lot of people, but because it was recognized as a film with a lot of value.
It’s also pretty funny. I watched it as part of my binge-watch with my kids and we were giggling at the slapstick humour, these useless policemen.
It’s like a Monty Python police force. It’s not at all strange to say that you know Virgil Tibbs is the smartest person in the room.
I think what makes the movie work is that Chief Gillespie wants to be a good policeman and he wants to be an honourable man and that is the arc of his character. When the plantation owner turns to Gillespie and asks, ‘What are you going to do?’ Gillespie says, ‘I’m going to take it under advisement’ and the plantation owner says, ‘you know, in the old days, the last police chief would have shot him.’ And for us watching this—and I hope for audiences in 1967— this is the moment when you think, ‘thank God we are not in the old days.’ We are in some ways—George Floyd’s murder proves that—but we hope that, as Dr. King used to say, there are people of good conscience who want to be better and to do better in regard to racial questions.
Do you feel that Hollywood leads or follows, in terms of progress on race?
It’s a little bit of both. I’ve been doing these cultural studies for the past 30 years and it is rare that you find a direct correlation—a Hollywood star does this and America follows. In an earlier film, It Happened One Night, Clark Gable, who is the male lead in Gone with the Wind, is shown in a hotel room with Claudette Colbert. He takes off his shirt and he’s not wearing an undershirt, as was the practice in the United States at that time. That is one of the few quantifiable Hollywood effects, because we know sales of undershirts declined precipitously after Clark Gable took off his shirt and revealed his bare chest.
Most of the time, what we look at is anecdotal effects. I mention in the book that I showed Get Out at Washington National Cathedral a couple of years ago. One of my white female students from Baylor University was there watching and discussing these films and talking about race. After we watched Get Out, she turned to me in tears and said, ‘I’ve never before in my life understood what white people do to Black people.’ In Get Out we are invited to participate in Daniel Kaluuya’s character’s life. He is our point of view character for the film. My student had been insulated from many of the horrible things that happen in our culture because of her privilege and her wealth. In the course of her everyday life, she was not going to have this realisation, but a Hollywood film shaped her response in a way that she might not otherwise have had. Powerful stories can transform us.
“I’ve been doing these cultural studies for the past 30 years and it is rare that you find a direct correlation—a Hollywood star does this and America follows.”
The other thing that I will say about Hollywood is that artists, and thought leaders in general, are often more progressive, because they’re looking for the next thing, the next understanding, the next bit of wisdom. They don’t want to lie in the road and do what has always been done. For me, as an artist, when I write a novel or a nonfiction book, I don’t want to do what I’ve already done. I want to do something new. I want to learn something new and Hollywood has traditionally been a leader, at least in terms of pushing America to move forward on race.
In my book, I talk about these different phases. Hollywood started in this place of abject racism and then began taking little baby steps toward more profound and powerful representation, until at last we came to the point where not only were people of colour making their own movies and starring in their own movies, but using Hollywood storytelling traditions to push back against racism and prejudice.
So, on that note, should we talk about Do the Right Thing?
Yes, we should. I’ve been teaching Do the Right Thing for 30 years. It is a powerful and profound film. One thing that’s important to mention when we talk about this film is that often people talk about Spike Lee as a great black filmmaker. That is so incredibly reductive. Spike Lee is one of the most important American filmmakers and Do the Right Thing is one of the most important American films of the last 50 years.
It’s a challenging film. My students have wrestled with it from the beginning and continue to wrestle with it because, as I point out in my book, it is not a film with a closed ending. Usually when we read a novel, we’ve spent a few hundred pages with characters and we expect the story to be wrapped up and tied up with a bow. We have gone on a journey and we are ready to know what we’ve learned.
Many films about race do this as well. One of the films that came out in 1989 and actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year was Driving Miss Daisy. It’s a very traditional Hollywood film and it’s often the kind of film that the Oscars will honour, because it’s a film about an individual who becomes less racist, in this case through her contact with a person of colour. It’s a film that’s tied up with a bow and what it indicates to its audiences is that your responsibility is done. You are absolved of future thought.
“We are going to have to figure out a way to live together. That’s the great challenge and opportunity that Do the Right Thing presents us with”
Spike Lee does not do that in Do the Right Thing. The title of the film comes from a line delivered by Da Mayor who is played by the civil rights activist Ossie Davis. Early in the film, he pulls aside Spike Lee’s character, Mookie, and says, “Doctor, always do the right thing.” And so the question that we ask over and over again in discussions of this film in class and in the screenings that I do is, ‘Does anybody do the right thing? What is the right thing?’ Spike Lee himself has said that audiences have been asking him this question since the movie came out. In particular, he says that people are always coming up to him and asking, ‘Did Mookie do the right thing?’ And he makes the point that he has never been asked this by a Black person. Not to spoil it, but at the end of the film, there are a series of really dramatic and violent actions and white audiences have always reflected differently on those actions than Black audiences.
It’s interesting to note, by the way, that Barack Obama and Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date. There’s a movie about that afternoon they spent together and it depicts them walking out of the movie and one of Michelle Obama’s white law partners coming up to them and asking Barack specifically, ‘Do you think Mookie did the right thing?’
And what does Obama reply?
He says something very similar to what I have often said. Again, not to spoil the end of the film, but there is an option where human lives can be lost or property can be destroyed. White people, because they typically own property, tend to look at destruction of property as violence, but there is actual fatal violence in Do the Right Thing. So, what the Barack Obama character says—and what I think the actual Barack Obama said, because he’s a smart guy—is, ‘Here’s why Mookie did what he did.’ If violence that would have gone against human beings is redirected to property, isn’t that a win? And yet white audiences struggle with that.
Of these films, Do the Right Thing is the one that made me feel most uncomfortable. On the one hand you like Sal and his sons and on the other hand you don’t. The same with Mookie. Then there are the Koreans and the way the Koreans are treated. It causes discomfort across the board, which I guess is what he was trying to do.
That is very much Spike Lee’s strategy. When I teach this film or talk about it, I say that what Spike Lee is intending to do is confront us. He does that even before we start the movie. In the opening moments of the film, even before the credits roll, we hear a few bars of a song called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is sometimes called the ‘Black national anthem.’ We hear a few bars of it played by saxophone and then Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” comes on and we immediately get this collision between old Black and new Black.
“Spike Lee is one of the most important American filmmakers and Do the Right Thing is one of the most important American films of the last 50 years”
Then, during the opening credits, Rosie Perez is boxing and during much of that time she is actually boxing us; she is looking at us and breaking the fourth wall. Breaking the fourth wall is a strategy that Spike Lee uses throughout this film to confront the audience directly. The most famous sequence in the film is what Spike Lee calls ‘the racism scene’, where characters in the film turn to the audience and spew racial hate about the group that they are most angry about. For Sal’s son, it’s African Americans, for the Italian cop it’s Puerto Ricans, etc. We are meant to be uncomfortable and to live in that discomfort.
That’s one of the things that also happens in another Spike Lee film, BlacKkKlansman, which I talk a little bit about in the book and is also really amazing, one of the top films of the last 50 years. It doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t absolve us of further work. Spike Lee, not just as a great artist, but as an activist, is pushing the audience: ‘This is what I’ve shown you. This is the story that I’ve given you. What is the right thing? What are you willing to do? What are your next steps? Discuss.’
How did Do the Right Thing do at the box office?
It was not a huge grossing film because white audiences were scared away from going to the theatre. Roger Ebert talks about hearing a critic at Cannes saying, ‘They can’t show this in the States, there will be riots.’ Three really influential white critics wrote that it was a dangerous movie because, instead of enclosing the story and tying it up for us, Spike Lee is inciting the audience’s emotions.
Something similar happened with John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood which came out a couple of years later. That’s also a really phenomenal film, from this phase where people of colour are writing and directing their own films and appearing in them. White audiences were scared away from that film as well, because they were made to think, ‘Hey, this is going to be a scary thing for us to watch.’ My wife, Jeanie, talks about seeing this film in Austin with her then boyfriend, and how they were the only white people in the audience.
Do the Right Thing is a film with incredible cultural value, but not the same kind of popular success we talked about with Birth of a Nation or with Gone with the Wind, where the white, mainstream audience felt comfortable and safe and confirmed.
Is In the Heat of the Night a film the audience can feel comfortable with, do you think?
Largely, yes. Even with the radical actions that Sidney Poitier’s character takes during the film. You have a racist character who becomes less racist. That’s wrapped up, done, I can go to bed.
Thinking about it, the reason I found Do the Right Thing so disturbing is because it made me feel that the problems are insoluble. It just seemed there’s no way out of this, everybody just hates each other.
There is no simple way out of it. As I said, often when I teach it or lead conversations about it I ask, ‘Who did the right thing in this film? Did anybody?’ There is not a person who’s universally good in the film. I talk in the book about Da Mayor, who on several occasions does do the right thing, but he’s an alcoholic and the laughingstock of the youth in the neighbourhood. They don’t take him seriously. Mookie does not do the right thing through most of the movie. He’s morally lax and lazy. Then, at the end of the movie, you see him make this conscious decision and you don’t know what it means until you reflect on it. Go back and take a look at this film, or watch it for the first time, and look how precise his motions are at the end of the film, when he makes his decision. He is trying to do the right thing and to do it with a minimum of harm, understanding that there will be harm. But it is the better of the two choices.
I absolutely hear what you’re saying, because every time I watch the end of Do the Right Thing I am in tears, because it feels like things will never change. There is violence against a young Black man, just as there was earlier this year, just as there may be this afternoon. It’s heartbreaking.
There’s also that human recognition that we are all wrestling with this and we are invited to think about it further. The film ends with the radio disc jockey, played by Samuel L. Jackson, asking, “Are we going to live together?” And that is the essential question, particularly for us in the United States, because as James Baldwin says, here we do not have the luxury of distancing ourselves. We can’t divorce each other. We are going to have to figure out a way to live together. That’s the great challenge and opportunity that Do the Right Thing presents us with.
We’d better move on to the fourth film on your list, which is 12 Years a Slave. Tell me why you picked it for our discussion of race and movies.
12 Years a Slave was best picture at the Academy Awards in 2014 as well as at the BAFTAS. It’s got a British director, a British star, and a couple of British actors involved. What is essential about 12 Years a Slave is that it shows the torture and sexual violence of slavery. It’s a vital corrective to Gone with the Wind and all of the Lost Cause narratives.
I first watched 12 Years a Slave at the Austin Film Festival in 2014, when screenwriter John Ridley was there. I watched it in a mostly white audience and at the end of the film, we could not get up from our seats. We had been so powerfully affected that we could not move. I felt so stricken that I thought I could never walk out of the theatre after what I had just seen.
So, Solomon Northup, who is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free Northern Black who is kidnapped and then transported to the worst place in America for slaves, which was Louisiana. Slavery was horrifying throughout the American South, but slaves in Louisiana were picking cotton and, as we see from the character Patsy, they had these targets for their daily cotton-picking that they were supposed to achieve. There was this very real sense that they were in a world where civilization did not apply. The masters of the plantations could do whatever they wanted. Throughout the movie Michael Fassbender’s character, Epps, rapes Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsy. At one point he orders Solomon Northrup to whip her.
If you compare that with Gone with the Wind where, early on, the sun is going down and one of the slaves says, ‘Well. I guess we’re done for the day.’ It’s like they’re going home to have a good time being slaves. There is so much historically wrong with that romantic depiction of slaves, their love for their masters, the idea that they had this benevolent force looking after and over them. Michael Fassbender’s character is a brilliant contemporary villain, because he embodies so much of the violence and oppression and privilege. He will do whatever he can get away with.
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I told you when we picked these films that we were looking at mythologies: helpful and harmful. The one reservation that I have about 12 Years a Slave is there is a narrative mythology in it which I find problematic, which is the white saviour story. Brad Pitt, who was one of the producers of the film, plays a character who helps Solomon Northup get to freedom. This is very common, particularly with white actors—it’s almost always actors, although Sandra Bullock played a similar white saviour role in a movie called The Blind Side for which, of course, she won an Academy Award—but Brad Pitt’s character makes it possible for Solomon Northup to escape his bondage.
One of the things that people find harmful and damaging about the white saviour narrative is the idea that people of colour are not able to advance themselves, that they require rescue. In the conversations that I’ve been having for the last four years about racial reconciliation and healing, the sense that I get from my friends who are people of colour is that they do not want to be rescued and, at the same, they do not want to do all the work themselves, because we created this system and need to be there on the frontlines with them. That’s the tension. How do we find a balance between the white saviour, ‘I’m going to come in and wave my magic wand and fix everything for you’ and ‘I’m going to leave you to your own deserts and good luck with that.’ I wrestle with this as well.
One of the problems for the film is that it’s part of the historical record. 12 Years a Slave is based on a slave autobiography and if this particular person–the character Sam Bass in the film—had not gotten a letter away to the people who knew Solomon Northup back in New York, he would never have escaped bondage.
But these are the stereotypes we wrestle with, even in contemporary Hollywood. Brad Pitt is a notably progressive Hollywood actor and producer, as is Matthew McConaughey. He also appeared in a film not too long ago in which he played a white saviour. It’s one of the things that we are trying to put to bed, but we can’t do that until we notice it and call it out for what it is.
The kids and I definitely laughed about Brad Pitt playing that role, because we were like, why has Brad Pitt suddenly appeared in this film? Typical that he would cast himself as a hero! It did stick out; I don’t think it added to the film having him in that role.
Yes, a less visible actor would have made the trope less visible. Brad Pitt is the highest-ranking Hollywood personality in the film, so it draws attention to what is going on. If he had cast a nobody, I don’t think we’d necessarily be talking about it, but it’s like, ‘I produced this movie and I’m going to take on this role and I do get to be the pivotal character who saves Solomon Northup.’
At the end of the film there are historical notes and you can read how Solomon Northup escaped from slavery, but normally people didn’t. I noticed that the book that won the Pulitzer Prize for History this year was also about a poor woman who had won her freedom but was then kidnapped and sold down the Mississippi River as a slave. I guess it was quite common, which is so scary, that even if you were free, you weren’t safe if you were Black.
It’s a horrifying film. During much of its runtime, I just sat there reminding myself about the title, 12 years: this is going to end at some point. And the reason that I call it a necessary corrective to those films about the Lost Cause, those nostalgic films about slavery, is because it is so horrible. It is not generically a horror film, but it has that same effect on us, because it reminds us of the depths to which human beings can sink. It’s a really valuable film for people to watch and I wanted to recommend it just to say, ‘If you have ever had this notion of friendly slave owners and congenial slaves who loved each other so much that they just continued to live together, even after they were free, that whole faithful retainer thing, this film will show you what’s wrong with that idea.’
And what I love about what Jordan Peele does in Get Out is he actually gives a sort of supernatural explanation for the faithful retainer, because that idea is so messed up.
Yes, so from a horrifying film to a real horror movie. Let’s talk more about Get Out and how that fits into our discussion of movies and race. It’s a great film and very funny as well.
I resisted watching this movie for a long, long time. I’m at an age where I don’t watch horror films for the most part, but this was a film that had so much cultural currency and I was slated to talk about it at Washington National Cathedral. So my son Chandler, who is youngish and still enjoys this kind of film, sat down with me and we watched it. Then we watched it again because, as I point out in my book, this film has so many incredible narrative surprises in it that it needs to be watched more than once. The things that you expect turn out not to be true. Like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, it is one of those stories that you have to return to with your new eyes to see every event in a new way.
One of the reasons that I wanted to recommend Get Out to your readers is that, like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, it’s emblematic of the kind of film where filmmakers of colour are taking traditional Hollywood filmmaking techniques and genres and tropes and turning them on their heads.
There are a couple of tropes that are really essential. The first one is that in an American film, usually, if there is a Black character, he or she is the first person to die. When we were prepping for a conversation about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at Washington National Cathedral, our moderator was Korva Coleman, who is a newscaster for our National Public Radio. She was watching it and her teenage daughter walked through the living room, glanced at the TV screen where Sidney Poitier was, and asked her mom, ‘When does he die?’
So, there is this first man out trope in horror films, and it is contrasted with what we call the white virgin trope. If you watch an American slasher film—Halloween or Friday the 13th, any of the films in that genre—it is the virginal white female who somehow manages to survive the violence and depredation. There is a virginal white female in Get Out and let’s just say that Jordan Peele rings a number of reversals on this particular horror film convention.
“In an American film, usually, if there is a Black character, he or she is the first person to die”
There are lots of other things as well. There is a trope in American film about the ineffectual Black friend who is played for comic relief. So Chris, who is played by Daniel Kaluuya, has a best friend who works as a security screener at an airport (presumably in New York, we’re not really told where the film takes place. Interestingly, the film was made in the very deep South, in a place called Fairhope, Alabama. It’s a very white place and I’m sure captured some of the creepy ambiance that Jordan Peele was looking for).
The film is smart and funny and scary and heartbreaking, because the longer you watch, the more you begin to realize how the things that are happening in the story are mythologically deep. They’re reflective of Black experience and the ways that white people have appropriated Black culture and appropriated Black bodies. It is a story that has incredible resonance.
Another interesting thing is that the movie was written and went into pre-production while Barack Obama was president. Then, when Donald Trump was elected, racial incidents in the United States skyrocketed, including a heartbreaking racial assault that took place on my own campus the day after the 2016 election. So Jordan Peele changed the ending, to offer some modicum of hope in a world that had suddenly become much more dark. It’s a brilliant ending and does everything that Jordan Peele hoped it would do. It reflects the seriousness of any Black encounter with law enforcement, but it also offers us some tiny little bit of hope moving forward. That’s another powerful thing about it.
Like the rest of the films we’ve talked about today, it’s beautifully made, it’s dramatically affecting and it’s entertaining, but this film in particular pushes back not just against American history, but against all of the different ways that Hollywood has told stories about American history. That was what I found particularly brilliant about Get Out.
I really enjoyed it. It was so uncomfortable at the beginning, like the father who says, ‘Oh I would have voted for Obama a third time.’ You’re sitting there cringing and I was almost glad when it got to the horror bit—the blood and guts—because I thought, ‘at least this is just straightforward scary.’
The character of the father in the film was played by Bradley Whitford, who appeared in the American TV series The West Wing, written and produced by Aaron Sorkin. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967 we had Spencer Tracy, one of the greatest, most sincere, most genuinely decent human beings, in the father role. That was his persona on screen: he wasn’t dangerous, he wasn’t edgy, he was good. To see that character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner wrestling with these racial questions allowed audiences to do the same thing.
When Jordan Peele cast a parallel character in Get Out, he chose another liberal, sincere icon. One of the things that often happens in great Hollywood movies is people are invited either to inhabit their persona or to bounce off their persona. So for anybody watching Get Out whose primary experience of Brad Whitford is the character in The West Wing, the turns that the father character takes are disturbing, but they’re also indicting, because, as Bradley Whitford said in an interview, ‘I’m the kind of person who would say something like I would have voted for Obama three times.’ The film isn’t just pushing back against conservative American racism, it’s also pushing back against liberal American racism.
When I co-founded Five Books in 2009, I had this strong feeling that to get the most out of them, books needed to be explained. But this interview has made me realize that the experience of watching movies can also be really enhanced by hearing people talk about them. There’s a lot I wouldn’t have picked up on if I’d hadn’t spoken to you. Watching these movies and reading your book seems like a perfect combination.
I hope so. Going back to HBO’s decision to return Gone with the Wind to the airwaves with some context, it’s valuable simply because it allows us to have some conscious reflection on what is normally an unconscious response. In movies, the story washes over us and we enter into the lives of the characters. We’re emotionally connected to them. What I try to do every time I show or teach a film is say, ‘Okay, here are three things I want you to think about. Park them while you’re watching. Don’t not experience the film, but also hold these things in the back of your head. Then, when the film is over and the emotional response is done, you can also have a cerebral response to what you just experienced.’
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Greg Garrett is the author of twenty nonfiction works on faith, politics, race, culture, and narrative, as well as four acclaimed novels and two books of memoir. He is, according to BBC Radio, one of America's essential voices on religion and culture. An award-winning Professor of English at Baylor University, Greg also serves as Theologian in Residence at the American Cathedral in Paris, and is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
Greg Garrett is the author of twenty nonfiction works on faith, politics, race, culture, and narrative, as well as four acclaimed novels and two books of memoir. He is, according to BBC Radio, one of America's essential voices on religion and culture. An award-winning Professor of English at Baylor University, Greg also serves as Theologian in Residence at the American Cathedral in Paris, and is an elected member of the Texas Institute of Letters.
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