18. April 2018

The SCHIRN MAG presents five outstanding films, which do not only deal with racism in the USA, but do also grab its history by the scruff of the neck and drag it into the spotlight.

By Jens Balkenborg

The political debates surrounding racism in the United States are finally starting to have a greater impact on the production culture in Hollywood. Following – or rather, in the thick of – the MeToo scandal, Tinseltown also finds itself in an albeit slow-moving, but long overdue sea change with regard to cultural diversity: Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” recently launched as the first ever superhero film with a black protagonist, while Ava DuVernay’s contemporary Disney fairytale “A Wrinkle in Time” is the first 100-million-dollar blockbuster to be directed by an African-American. One of the starring roles in the latter movie goes to the queen of American talk shows, Oprah Winfrey, who has long campaigned for equality for African-Americans.

Alongside the abovementioned films, which all deal more or less directly with racist themes, many others have emerged over the last few years with content focused on very specific events, thus grabbing American racism and its sometimes nostalgically glorified history by the scruff of the neck and dragging it into the spotlight. The five following feature and documentary films are impressive examples of the political force and relevance of cinema. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay plays a crucial role in the battle for equality, as demonstrated by her two films featured in the list.

Ava DuVernay, 2015, Image via Wikicommons
12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen’s drama “12 Years a Slave” is a cinematographic punch to the gut. Never before had the fate of a slave been shown in all its realism and misery. McQueen based the film on the autobiographical writings of the same name by Solomon Northup, who was abducted from his life as a free citizen in Saratoga Springs around 1840 and transported to a New Orleans plantation. The viewer becomes a witness to the barbaric suffering inflicted on Northup, grippingly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Starting with his abduction and continuing through a period spent with an “owner” who is relatively “good-hearted” (albeit still with scant regard for human life) and later with sadistic plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), “12 Years a Slave” tells a story of gradual incapacitation and dehumanization.

The movie pulls no punches, and McQueen reveals the monstrosity of slavery in all its brutality and complexity, showing images that linger in the memory. At the 2014 Oscars, “12 Years a Slave” was the deserving winner of the awards for best film and best adapted screenplay.

12 Years A Slave, Copyright Mars Distribution
Selma (2014)

Ava DuVernay’s biopic about Martin Luther King focuses on the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery. In the spring of 1965 African-American citizens in Selma took to the streets to campaign for unlimited voting rights. Such rights existed on paper after the Civil Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but in many parts of the country they were implemented either haltingly or not at all. During the first march, protesters were beaten back behind the city limits by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 9, 1965, a second March was held, initiated by Martin Luther King. DuVernay stages this collective moment as a veritable showdown, which King nevertheless abandons before the bridge, under pressure from members of Congress and with the aim of de-escalation. It is only on the third attempt that the marchers eventually make it to Montgomery.

DuVernay breathes new life into the events in and around Selma, which were of such huge importance for the civil rights movement. At the same time, she chooses not to glorify Martin Luther King, played here by the fantastic David Oyelowo, but rather shows him as a determined yet fallible figure who is nevertheless plagued by doubt. “Selma” is an insightfully filmed historical portrait, which builds its story unemotionally on the foundation of the collective power that was the civil rights movement.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Thirty years after the death of writer James Baldwin, director Raoul Peck gives him and the civil rights activists a voice once more. By way of a template, the Haitian director used a 30-page manuscript containing Baldwin’s razor-sharp analysis of the coexistence of white and black society in his homeland. He was prompted to write the text by the murders of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

More than many other so-called “essay films,” “I Am Not Your Negro” is entirely worthy of the title thanks to its skillful construction and reflexive force. Peck achieves great things from a number of perspectives: On the one hand he uses the portrait of an individual to tell the story of injustices against a large proportion of the American population in the 20th century. On the other, he reflects these injustices through the sharp understanding of a man who was surrounded by them during his lifetime and at the same time acted as their chronicler. Ultimately, “I Am Not Your Negro” shows that even today, half a century later, there is sufficient cause for concern. The fact that someone like Donald Trump is now in power does not help to ease the tension in this regard. As Baldwin describes it right at the beginning of the film: “It’s not the question what happens to the negro here, to the black man here, (...) the real question is what’s gonna happen to this country.”

I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, Copyright Karma Films
13th (2016)

The title of Ava DuVernay’s documentary film, shown on Netflix, refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery after the end of the American Civil War. At least it did so on paper, since – and this is what the film coherently explores – there were and indeed are still forces in America which, in line with the relevant circumstances, foster the oppression of the black population.

Incorporating many different voices, DuVernay examines the developments from slavery through the Jim Crow era, which turned African-Americans into second-class citizens, to what is ultimately today’s form of “neo-slavery” in the shape of a “prison industry,” providing big corporations with cheap labor. This was preceded by the zero-tolerance strategy, which led to an explosion in the number of people incarcerated, particularly among the black population, during the 1980s and 1990s.

“13th” is an impressive appeal against the apparatus of oppression, and at the same time DuVernay reveals a tendency running through the whole of society: from racism evident in media and political rhetoric to the even more dangerous latent prejudice.

Detroit (2017)

In the year 1967 race riots escalated in Detroit and hate reigned in the city: As the result of a police crackdown, there were five days of street battles between security forces and overwhelmingly African-American protesters. The result was 43 dead and around 1,200 injured after the so-called “12th Street riot.”

In her thriller “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow recounts the events in the city in breathtakingly dynamic images. Bigelow and her screenwriter and producer Mark Boal focus on the so-called “Algier Motel Incident,” which unfolded when the police believed they were being shot at from the motel on 12th Street and stormed the building. Instead of a gunman they found one lone guest, who was just messing around with a blank pistol. Three African-Americans were killed in the process, and several others were injured during the interrogations. Bigelow reconstructs the brutal events with the help of eye-witness reports and records, shifting between heavy, intimate drama and sprawling street battles. The film is impressive and nuanced in its portrayal of how oppression and poverty can spiral into violence and exposes the terrible mechanisms of institutionalized racism.

Detroit, Copyright Mars Films