Monday, September 2, 2013

Movies As History Lessons


I have been big into historical movies over the past year or so. Not exactly sure why but all of a sudden, I am eager to learn about history. It probably would have benefited me more if this history bug struck me when I was actually taking history classes. Maybe I would have gotten better grades.


The movies I have been watching lately have to do with a variety of issues including WW2 and the Civil Rights Movement. I watched the movie The Help and read the book last year. Both the movie and the book made enough of an impact on me that I wrote a blog entry about it. I have to tell you, writing about race is a touchy area because no matter what you say, you are most likely going to be criticized. For example, the piece I did on The Help. Some of the feedback I received was about how that story was written by a Caucasian woman so it was a one-sided story. I also heard a comment about the fact that I based some of my thoughts and feelings on a product that comes from Hollywood. You know, the big screen.


Recently I have seen two movies that profoundly affected me even more. The first was 42: The Jackie Robinson Story and yesterday my husband and I went to the cinema to see The Butler. Seeing these movies with my husband is really a privilege for me because he is fourteen years older than me. He was born when Eisenhower was president. I was born during the Nixon era. Yeah, I know, I know. Our age difference spans through four different presidencies which means that he has experienced a lot more in this country than I have. And honestly, part of me is embarrassed by that because I don't know where the heck I was during high school history classes but my lack of historical knowledge, especially regarding this country, is pathetic. Maybe that is why I have the current interest in history.


Here's the thing about these types of movies. They are based on real events but they are rarely an exact replica of the story that took place. Details get changed, characters get added, etc. So please, no comments about that. I understand it is Hollywood and that they are out to make a profit. But for me, that does not change the impact that 42 and The Butler had on me.


Both 42 and The Butler are told from the perspective of an African-American man. Although both movies span several decades, the focus is on the time period of the Civil Rights Movement. Both movies show the movie watcher the terrible injustices inflicted upon the African-American community during the 1940-1960's time period.

Here are some facts about me:

* I am Caucasian.
* I was born in 1971.
* I grew up in a town called West Springfield, MA and then moved to a town five minutes away called Feeding Hills, MA. White suburbia.
* I had one African-American friend the entire time I was growing up until I went away to college. Ironically, her name was Jeanine Butler.
* My one African-American friend was actually the only non-Caucasian friend I had until I went to college at UMASS Amherst.


I did not grow up to be racist or prejudiced despite the fact that the environment I grew up in was anything but diverse. When I went to college at UMASS Amherst in 1993, I was exposed to so many different cultures, races, and lifestyles that it overwhelmed me. And to be honest, it was good for me. But in college, I was a nursing student. I did not spend much time at all studying our country's history.


So why did these movies, especially The Butler, affect me so greatly? Because I truly had no comprehension of what this country was like in the 1940's-1960's, a mere ten-thirty years before I was born. Yes, I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr. was and what he did and yes, I had even heard about the Freedom Riders. But I didn't REALLY know. Until I saw these two movies, I had no comprehension about the extent of pain and suffering that the African-American community suffered in this country during that particular time and in some ways, still do today. I know plenty about the Holocaust and it has been a big interest of mine over the past few years, mostly because it fascinates me how such an atrocity could occur. That's all well and good but atrocities also happened here, in the United States of America. And to be honest, it sickens me. It outrages me. It makes me ashamed of my country.


Photo courtesy of Denverpost.com

 
 
In writing about this, I am not trying to make excuses for my lack of insight about how we, as Americans, treated our fellow African-American citizens. I knew about separate water fountains. I knew about riding in the back of the bus. I knew about separate schools for the children. I knew it was wrong and this country screwed up. However there is a scene in The Butler where the Freedom Riders sat at a restaurant counter that was designated for "whites only." There have rarely been times in a movie that I have struggled to keep my composure but yesterday in that dark movie theater, it was very difficult to watch those college age American citizens spat on, condiments poured all over them, beaten up, and hot coffee thrown on them. Just because, according to that community, they were the wrong color.


Reading something in a history book is one thing. Watching a bus explode and seeing the fear in those actors and actresses faces is another (Freedom Riders clip in The Butler). Yes, they were acting. But they were enacting true events that happened in the country. People were beaten. People were humiliated. People were killed. All because of the color of their skin.

Freedom Riders bus
Photo courtesy of Denverpost.com

I sit today and think about the African-American people I know. How would I feel if any of these injustices were committed upon my girlfriend or my soon to be brother-in-law? Or to the children in my church? I have no words. Except for the following: it bothers me that we even recognize that there is a difference in the color of our skins. Maybe that is naïve, I don't know.


So thank you Hollywood. Thank you to the producers and directors who thought these stories were important enough to be on the big screen. Although history cannot be taught solely through movies, these movies have compelled me to do something. Instead of sitting here in my house just being angry about the events that happened, I will spend time learning and reading. I know that in my lifetime I will never fully understand or be able to identify on any level what African-American citizens and their ancestors have faced during the course of American history, including present day. But at the very least, I can become more aware and more educated. Knowledge of the past is power. Knowledge of the past enables us to be more understanding. Knowledge of the past promotes awareness of the present. Knowledge of the past helps us to change the future.

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