Instructions for Unit 5 Film Review: Discrimination and the Struggle for Equality (8th edition)
Discrimination and the Struggle for Equality
“Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. [But] We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.”– Collin McGuinn
The assignment for this unit is to write a critical review of a film as it relates to the struggle for equality. This means that you must research the work and cite your sources accordingly. I strongly urge you to read some reviews by professional film critics to get an idea of how this genre works. Below are samples of the type of resources you are most likely to be using; be sure that you cite the film itself as well as the critical reviews you consult. However, you do not need to include an internal parenthetical citation to the movie when the text makes it clear that you are referencing it. Pay close attention to the correct citation format for movie reviews.
Sample movie citation:
Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, 1992. DVD.
If you are citing a specific actor or director’s work then begin the citation with that person’s name.
Poitier, Sidney, perf. No Way Out. Dir. Joseph Mankiewicz. 20th Century Fox, 1950. DVD.
Sample movie review citation:
Ebert, Roger. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Rev. of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, dir. Stanley Krammer. Chicago Sun-Times 25 Jan. 1968. Web. 10 Jan. 2010
Sample article from a data base:
“Plot Summary: Capitalism: A Love Story.” 2009. International Movie Database. Web. 10 Jan. 2010.
(Warning: don’t just cite the entire database, i.e. IMDB. You don’t need to cite the “Plot Summary” if you watch the movie yourself, which of course you will; the above example is just to illustrate the format.)
Sample movie web page citation:
Invictus. Home page. Warner Bros. Pictures. N.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2010.
Sample book citation:
Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Purpose, Focus, and Suggested Approaches for the Assignment:
As we have seen, artistic images, printed stories, and musical compositions all have the power to inspire empathetic responses and thus have contributed to the growth of the human rights movement. In the 20th century, film, a medium that combines all of these arts, has proved especially effective in shaping our view of the world. Visual images have even more power than the printed word, and narrative techniques enable the audience to identify with the characters on a personal level. Realizing this, filmmakers sometimes use their medium to focus on injustice and to inspire social change or to create a feeling of unity among those who suffer discrimination. For this unit, you will select a film that relates to some aspect of the 20th century movement for equality and write a review of it.
You may take one of several approaches to the assignment. For example, you may want to explore the early days of the film industry from the perspective of the human rights movement. Rather than encouraging equality, early films reinforced stereotypes and strengthened prejudices. The exception to this rule is the genre known as “race” movies, made by blacks for black audiences. While few of these films have survived, they are discussed and described in the literature of film history.
As long as society was strictly segregated, the only viable roles for blacks to play in mainstream films seemed to be servants and entertainers, and even these parts were frequently excised for distribution in the South. Although the roles were stereotypical and limited, some talented actors and musicians gained a degree of recognition and respect and began challenging the color line. Other marginalized groups—Native Americans, women, and ethnic minorities—faced similar prejudices.
Another interesting approach is to investigate the impact of World War II on race and gender relations in the movie industry. As we have seen, the war against the virulently racist Nazis caused a reevaluation of longstanding assumptions in America, one reflected in the movie industry. You may want to select a movie from this era to review and discuss the meaning of this change.
Then with the civil rights movement, the movie industry changed quickly, becoming more politicized, just as did American society as a whole. One of the most powerful ways that film contributed to this change was, not from the Hollywood perspective, but with the actual footage of the battles occurring in the American South. Every evening, television cameras brought into American living rooms the brutality of police officers using dogs, fire hoses, and billy clubs to prevent blacks from registering to vote, riding the bus, or eating at segregated restaurants. These film images played a key role in inspiring social change and have become iconic of the movement. A number of documentaries about the movement contain footage from this era.
In more recent years, the film industry has often adopted an educational approach to the history of civil rights and the campaign against discrimination and prejudice, drawing its subjects from the heroic stories of individuals and groups. In addition to the American civil rights movement, filmmakers have used as subjects the Nazi holocaust, South African apartheid, Native American exploitation, the negative portrayal of Middle Easterners and the impact of imperialism. As the women’s movement developed, films also began to reflect that changing reality and still later tackled the issue of discrimination against homosexuals. Some of these films are fictionalized accounts, while others are documentaries.
Within this broad framework you may select a specific director, actor, or actress whose work helped to change attitudes, or you may select a specific film to review. You may focus on racial, ethnic or gender equality.
Some general reference works that provide background information include Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness, James Snead’s White Screens/Black Images, Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, and Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.
A good Internet source that can help you find movie reviews is International Movie Data Base (imdb.com). This site has a link that will take you to reviews in major newspapers and journals (Look for “External Links.”) Be especially carefully in conducting your research for this unit! Everyone has an opinion about the movies, and many feel compelled to share them on the Internet, whether or not they possess credentials or expertise as film critics. For documenting your paper you should rely on film scholars or critics who write for the mainstream press or on people who work in the industry. Don’t use audience comments on sites like Imdb or Rotten Tomatoes; use their links to the work of legitimate critics and cite those sources.
If you want to focus on the impact of early movies, the most influential film is D.W. Griffith’s classic Birth of a Nation. This film pioneered movie-making techniques in the first epic film, but it portrayed blacks as ignorant, lazy, gullible, and violent. Its release inspired race riots and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, but it also brought brave protests from the NAACP and helped unite black Americans in resistance to the stereotyping. A few examples of less virulent but still demeaning stereotypical roles for black actors include Stepin Fetchit’s comic portrayal of dumb and lazy servants, Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson as the entertainer and confidant of Shirley Temple, and “Roscoe” as Jack Benny’s servant. Although these actors were criticized for reinforcing stereotypes, they made good livings and displayed exceptional talent. Only in all-black movies could they break out of these roles. A few early mainstream movies that dealt with race issues include Cabin in the Sky, Porgy and Bess, and Imitation of Life. Paul Robeson is an example of a black actor and singer who challenged the stereotypes and who was persecuted for his political activism.
As the film industry adapted to post-World War II, opportunities began to open up for talented black actors, and a new generation refused to be relegated to subservient roles. Dorothy Danbridge made her mark as the most glamorous black actress (Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess). As Hollywood’s only major black actor Sidney Poitier made a number of memorable films in the 1950s, such as No Way Out, Cry, the Beloved Country (an early treatment of apartheid in South Africa), and Blackboard Jungle. Then in the 1960’s he made groundbreaking movies like Lilies of the Field, (for which he was awarded the first Academy Award for Best Actor given to an African American), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (an attempt to deal with interracial marriage), Raisin in the Sun (a black family’s struggle to move out of the ghetto), and In the Heat of the Night (confrontation between a black and white cop).
Then in the late 1960’s and 1970’s a major shift occurred in Hollywood as Production Code restrictions were dropped and films became more political. Most of the civil rights era films dealt with white people’s awakening to the evil of prejudice and discrimination (To Kill a Mockingbird, Black Like Me, The Defiant Ones), rather than with the African American perspective, but they paved the way for the next generation of black film makers. In addition, movies like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song feature strong, aggressive black men, while Sounder portrays a strong, but poor, black family.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s black entertainers like Richard Pryor (Silver Streak and Stir Crazy) and Eddie Murphy (Trading Places and Coming to America) used comedy to expose and make fun of race prejudice. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles satirized not only race prejudice but also the racism displayed in Hollywood films.
Since the 1980’s some of Hollywood’s most interesting work has been produced by African American filmmakers: Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X), John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning), and Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust).
In recent years, Hollywood has found both the American civil rights movement and various other campaigns for equality to be fertile grounds, although once again many films feature white heroes or recount the familiar story of white awakening to injustice. Mississippi Burning, for example, is criticized for crediting white FBI agents with solving the murders of civil rights workers, while marginalizing the role of blacks. Ghosts of Mississippi is primarily the story of white prosecutor who reopened the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. A Long Walk Home deals with the Montgomery bus boycott. Other movies that portray various aspects of the civil rights movement or deal with racism include The Great Debaters, Ali, American History X, Driving Ms. Daisy, Remember the Titans, and most recently The Help. An important documentary is Eyes on the Prize (contains extensive actual film footage from the civil rights era). The film industry has also tackled the slavery issue with films like Glory (based on the true story of a black Civil War regiment) and Django (Quentin Tarantino’s take), and it has finally discovered the power of the slave narratives with 12 Years a Slave.
The movies have also dealt with prejudice and discrimination from perspectives other than that of the American civil rights movement. Anti-apartheid movies include Cry Freedom, Power of One, A Dry White Season, Catch a Fire, and Invictus. The Holocaust has also been the subject of some excellent movies, including Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Anne Frank, and Judgment at Nuremburg. Iron-Jawed Maidens is an excellent documentary on women’s suffrage. Philadelphia and Milk are award-winning movies that deal with gay issues.
Hopefully these suggestions will get you started, but in truth they barely scratch the surface so have fun exploring on your own!
Issues to Consider:
The following questions should help you get started, but remember not all questions will be relevant to every topic.
Who are the major people involved in making the movie? i.e. the director, producer, actors, etc.
- What was their motivation in making the movie?
- Who led in the effort to make the movie? What in his or her background made this project important?
- Summarize the plot of the movie.
- What are the major themes developed in the movie?
- How effective is the movie in conveying its intended message?
- Are special film techniques used? i.e. lighting, camera angles, special effects, etc.
- How was the movie received by the public? Did it do well at the box office?
- How did movie critics react to the film?
- How historically accurate is the film in dealing with the topic? Is it based on real people or real events?
- What are the film’s biases? Does the film’s message overpower the story?
- Evaluate the impact that the film had on public opinion. Did it challenge stereotypes or question established assumptions?
- Did the film change your perspective on the topic? How and why?
- Comment on the effectiveness of the cinematography, acting, directing, music, etc.
- If you are focusing on an actor, what is his or her background?
- What are his or her major films? How did they impact the industry and public opinion?