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Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Cinema is the best conduit for exposing racism

Racism has been the scourge of man since the dawn of time. While many mediums help to stem the tide of hatred – such as books, music, or visual art – the realm of cinema remains more effective than any other, helping to educate through visualising a message and the sense of grounding realism.

The fascinating aspect of cinema is that the art form is inherently a literature-based discipline, predominantly based on a script or a novel adaptation. However, cinema differs from the literature on which it is based as it offers a genuine visual representation, spelling out its themes to varying extents. When reading a piece of literature, your mind’s eye gives faces and life to the characters and establishes the final interpretation.

Of course, cinema also goes many steps ahead of theatre. Whilst the stage can be a powerful tool for exposing racism and other ignorances, the environment of the building itself can stifle its messaging. Whereas in cinema, the possibilities are limitless, with the budget, narrative devices, special FX, cinematography, and crew all helping to make an inherently multifarious form so versatile it can tell its story in almost any way.

The point is made clear when considering some of the best titles to have exposed racism in various capacities. To Kill a Mockingbird, In The Heat of the Night, Mississippi Burning, American History X, Django Unchained, Get Out, and BlacKkKlansman are just some of the movies that instantly spring to mind. To those that have witnessed just one of the aforementioned titles, you’ll understand just how powerful a picture can prove to be anti-racist statements. It goes without saying, the power of the audio-visual relationship underpins its vital message.

1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterful novel, and the film adaptation is equally as captivating, with the casting probing to be one of the most significant strokes of genius to date. It was quite quickly discovered by Harper Lee, who wrote the novel, that Gregory Peck – who took on the heroic anti-racist lawyer Atticus Finch – was playing himself. This factor helped to instil the film with the universal appeal that has made it so vital. The delivery of Harper Lee’s message through Finch and his daughter, the precocious narrator Scout, is the stuff of genius, which is why the movie has remained so powerful.

The movie embodied the many horrors of America’s deep-rooted racism through its characters, examples of which could be found in every town across the nation, and this was its true power. Whilst Lee’s words are timeless, witnessing them spoken by actors, each possessing their own idiosyncracies, was arguably more powerful than the novel. It told and showed America just how ridiculous the state of its race relations is, as even a child could deduce this. 

Then we have 1967’s mystery drama In the Heat of the Night, starring none other than Sidney Poitier, the most prominent Black actor of the day. Undoubtedly one of the most influential films ever made, the Norman Jewison-directed effort is much more than a simple mystery. The genre enabled the movie to fully expose America’s racism, exceeding the confines of John Ball’s original novel of the same name. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is often criticised for what many call a ‘white saviour’ perspective, but with In the Heat of the Night, there is no such criticism. At the time, no other cinematic project had ever challenged the murderous bigotry of America in such a no-frills way, grabbing the spectre of racism and holding it up against the mirror. Led by the unwavering power of Poitier, In the Heat of the Night became symbolic of Black America’s contemporary rebellion against the years of appalling treatment they had endured. 

The narrative follows Virgil Tibbs, a Black police detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved in a murder investigation in the small town of Sparta in rural Mississippi. Director Jewison managed to capture the subtle differences and similarities between Poitier’s Tibbs and his white counterpart, Bill Gillespie, in an incredible achievement of storytelling, lifting the film to a different level entirely.

This constant movement in Tibbs and Gillespie’s relationship served as the film’s primary narrative device, with these physical manifestations of Black and white America vocalising and physically demonstrating their arguments. Duly, it remains one of the starkest indictments of America’s social politics in history, displaying the negatives and offering an antidote by maintaining mutual respect was and is possible.

The refreshing nature of In the Heat of the Night was evident when the movie was first released. It was a stark departure from titles such as The Chase and Hurry Sundown, which presented confused, apologist accounts of the country’s racism, particularly that of the South. Its gritty depiction found resonance with Black audiences nationwide as it realistically represented the insidious racism they encountered daily. 

Whilst race films such as 1919’s The Homesteader kickstarted the use of cinema as an effective means of rebelling against racism, it was hits such as To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night that really helped push the topic further. From the blaxploitation genre of the 1970s to the hard-hitting true story Mississippi Burning and the “hatred starts in the family” tale of American History X, they enacted a change in mindset where movies came to be regarded as an incredibly powerful tool for exposing the truth, no matter how hard to digest it may be. 

In recent years, more experimental and post-modernist films have been created that expose racism in the starkest of ways, with two of the most prominent being Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Spike Lee’s BlackKkKlansman, helping to keep the flame alive by telling us that there is still much to be done. The ending of the latter is one of the most profound ways of making the point to date, searing the terrifying images of 2017’s Unite the Right rally into our brains once again. 

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