What three films and their black characters reveal about America’s ideas about race

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Writer Wil Haygood grew up watching movies with predominantly white actors – Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Henry Fonda.

“They all had one thing in common – they were all white. As a kid, I never saw a black actor,” Haygood said.

Black actors were on screen, but mostly in the background.

So in his new book, Colorization: a hundred years of black films in a white world, Haygood brings them to the fore, exploring the history of black performers in Hollywood.

It shows the films and the context in which they came out to better show the lives of African Americans.

And it explores what the movies say and what they don’t, from Woodrow Wilson showing Birth of a nation in the White House, to the use of cameras to nationalize the problems of black life.

Here Haygood highlights three notable films and tells us what they reveal about America’s ideas about race through their black characters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Imitation of Life (1959)

It is very important to know that when it came out in 1959, there were no blacks on weekly TV, other than playing the role of maids or drivers.

So here’s a movie directed by Douglas Sirk that pointedly spoke of a white family. And there was a famous mother who was an actress and she had a daughter.

But Sirk had another plot on a black family, which was a mother who was the bon vivant with this famous actress played by Juanita Moore. And she had a daughter who looked very fair. And the girl wanted to pass for white.

America had never shown on the big screen the psyche and the turmoil that could take place within a black family. And it really went to the roots of raw racism and self-hatred in this country.

It was a scorching moment, especially since Hollywood was very scared of making movies that involved race and most of all of making movies that involved white racism and seeing it up close like that.

Field lilies (1963)

This is based on a novel about a handyman [played by Sidney Poitier] look for a job. He meets a group of nuns from Europe who are here in the United States.

It was very difficult for Ralph Nelson, who was the director, to raise the funds for this film. He convinced Sidney Poitier to cut his salary, which he wanted to do because he liked the script so much.

To have a black man who didn’t speak stereotypically was very meaningful and very huge.

And of course, the following year, 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win an Oscar for a non-stereotypical role. So that was a big step forward in 1963, when this movie came out.

Selma (2014)

This film was about the famous March 7, 1965 march led by civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

For years the script had circulated. The filmmakers couldn’t make the film. And then a wonderful filmmaker named Ava DuVernay decided to do it. And she picked David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., and he gave an awesome performance.

Selma was such a success that it really started to wake up so many people.
A lot of people had questions – how come we are only now, in 2014, seeing a great epic movie about Martin Luther King Jr.? Why did we have to wait so long?

A lot of people were upset that David or Ava weren’t Oscar nominated. And we later had a movement that became known as #OscarsSoWhite. And it spawned in 2015, when there weren’t any nominated black actors or actresses. And it happened again in 2016. That’s why we need to know the story.

How do these things continue to happen? Why do they keep happening to black filmmakers? Because if you look back 100 years in the movie, then you see the pain and you see the effort and you see the struggle.

I think the future of black cinema is very promising. Filmmakers like Lee Daniels, like Spike Lee, like Ava DuVernay – I think they’re inspired by the struggle that came before them.

And so the pace is slow. It’s still too slow. But thank God there are people who want to change things, who want to make things better.

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