A bright-yellow truck comes into view. It's moving too fast for the dirt road, and it weaves and skids and kicks up dust as it speeds around turns. The truck is a sporty short-bed with a rollbar, jacked up on oversize tires, and displays a confederate flag in its rear window; this is not the beat-up utilitarian pickup of working people all over America, but a toy for the two drunken white men inside it. They are dirty, unshaven, sweaty and tattooed, and their hair, which badly needs cutting, hangs in greasy strings. In a few moments, when they get out of the truck briefly to buy more beer, we will see that their clothes do not fit them well: their shirts (at least one wears the sleeveless white ribbed undershirt known as a "wife-beater") are too tight and pull up off beer bellies, while their pants are too loose and slide down their hips, revealing their underwear.
These shots of the truck and its passengers, intercut with images of a 10-year-old black girl buying groceries for her family and setting out for home, make up the opening scene of A Time to Kill, a 1996 Joel Schumacher film based on the John Grisham novel of the same name. The two white men in the truck are so coded for evil by the signs above that their actions are almost redundant. We hardly need to hear them threaten to shoot two young black men who are playing basketball, or discussing the little girl in the most disgusting way as they approach her on the road ("Looks a little young," one says, to which the other replies, "If they're old enough to crawl, they're in the right position.") to know that they are no good. Their brutal rape, beating, and attempted hanging of the girl set the film's plot in motion: her father (Carl Lee Hailey, played by Samuel L. Jackson) kills them, and is tried for their murder. Whether he deserves to be punished for killing these two men is a question the film asks, but it never bothers to ask whether they deserve to die. John Wrathall writes in Sight & Sound that the film portrays the rapists as "redneck caricatures, so...we're supposed to cheer that they've been executed without a trial" (55). Indeed, that is precisely what happens at the climax of the film: thousands of people who have been waiting outside the courthouse erupt into celebration upon the announcement that Carl Lee has been acquitted, and the audience is clearly meant to cheer along.
A Time to Kill is a generic courtroom drama, with all the stock elements in place: the underdog lawyer going up against the big guns, the case-turning evidence showing up at the last possible moment, the impassioned closing argument that clinches the trial just when it appears that the good guys must lose. But it belongs to another genre, as well, which is perhaps less well-recognized despite an abundance of examples among films that are both box-office hits and critically acclaimed: the race film for and about white people. Donald Bogle, in his history of blacks in American films, cites Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, A Dry White Season, Glory, and Driving Miss Daisy as other examples of the genre. About Glory he writes that, white the film did dramatize a little-known facet of American history in its story of the first black infantry fighting in the Civil War, "it also bore the mark of well-intentioned filmmakers who still felt the need for inbuilt safeguards and points of identification for a large white audience" (309). A Time to Kill provides more than merely a few points of identification, quickly shunting aside the suffering of the black family whose daughter is brutalized and whose father is jailed so that the film can focus on the story of the white lawyer who defends the revenge-killer against mighty odds.
Another 1996 film, Ghosts of Mississippi, directed by Rob Reiner, is an even better example of the genre. Like three out of five films in Bogle's list, Ghosts purports to be a factual tale, announcing "This story is true" in dramatic white-on-black after the opening historical montage, a collection of familiar images of slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement artfully presented while a powerful female voice sings a spiritual about freedom. With this opening, the film places itself in the context of progress for African-Americans; it claims a place in the struggle for civil rights. Ghosts tells the story of the third trial of Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods), the white man who assassinated Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 but who was set free after two trials ended in hung juries. Thirty years later, after the case was re-opened, De La Beckwith was tried before a jury that, for the first time, included black men and women and white women, and was convicted of the murder. Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg), was central in pursuing the possibility of a third trial, but this movie is neither about her nor about Medgar Evers. In fact, a movie-goer who knew nothing about Medgar Evers going into this film would come out knowing little more, learning only that Evers worked in some vague way for Civil Rights for African-Americans, was assassinated, and made a remarkably well-preserved corpse when he was exhumed nearly thirty years after burial so that a new autopsy could be performed.
The interesting story that might be told about Medgar Evers' life and death, and about Myrlie Evers' continuing struggle to bring his murderer to trial a third time, is set aside in favor of the story of the white lawyer who takes on the task of prosecuting De La Beckwith in his third trial. Rob Reiner has used the story of the conviction of Evers' murderer as the jumping-off point to construct a generic courtroom drama with a white man at its center.
The white man at the center of these movies deserves a look. In Ghosts, he is Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), an assistant District Attorney who takes on the prosecution of De La Beckwith after initial reluctance and against opposition from his family, friends, and colleagues. In A Time to Kill, he is Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey), a lawyer with an unsuccessful private practice who takes on the defense of Carl Lee Hailey after initial (mild) reluctance and against opposition from his family, friends, and colleagues. Both men live in Mississippi without understanding the racial tensions that permeate their society. Bobby DeLaughter is affluent, self-satisfied, and completely unaware of racial issues; he sings "Dixie" to his daughter as a lullaby and shows no discomfort when, during lunch with his in-laws as the country club, his father rants about "liberals re-writing history" while being waiting on by "yas-suh"-ing black men in crisp white jackets. "I don't want you to ruin your career over some nigger," the father tells Bobby, turning without embarrassment to the black waiter who has stepped up during the speech and certainly overheard it. "Why, hello, Howard," he says, calling the waiter by name and asking after some favorite dish; Bobby lacks even the good grace to look uncomfortable.
Jake Brigance, on the other hand, has inherited an unsuccessful law firm from his drunken mentor, and he thinks he understands the race issue. He is not afraid to eat in a black restaurant, and when he gets the news of the little girl's rape, he indicates that he already knows Carl Lee Hailey and his family. But Jake must learn that what he thinks he knows about race is superficial and mistaken; Bobby must learn about race altogether. Both men make this transition successfully, each champions his unpopular cause and wins in court, and each is ultimately accepted--certified as a Good White Guy--by the black community. In Ghosts, Bobby's acceptance is signified by Myrlie Evers' turning over to him the only remaining certified copy of the original trial transcript, the other copies of which had disappeared from the DA's files, and her extraordinary statement, while they are waiting out jury deliberations, that he "reminds [her] of Medgar." In this scene, the white lawyer is declared to be equivalent to the martyred black civil rights leader. In A Time to Kill, Jake's acceptance is signified in the final scene of the film, by his arrival with his family at a celebratory barbecue at Carl Lee's home at which he and his blonde wife and daughter are the only white people.
As the main characters of these films, these two men represent the points of identification for the audience. They are both well-meaning but ignorant white men who, when their ignorance is made apparent to them, change. Their transformations are so complete that they become de facto civil rights leaders, powerful agents of social change who are able to accomplish for black people what black people have failed to accomplish for themselves: justice for black men within a racist American justice system.
This character--for Jake and Bobby are essentially the same man--is sandwiched between two other kinds of white people. First, there are affluent white racists, members of the Southern Aristocracy or its faded remnant. These are characters like Bobby's parents and in-laws and Jake's in-laws, who see black civil rights as a threat to their security, imagine that the civil rights won by black Americans were "given" to them by paternalistic white people (and that black people fail to appreciate the generous gift), and cannot understand why a white man would jeopardize his security and prospects for the sake of a black man. These characters, unlike Jake and Bobby, do not change, and Jake and Bobby's strategy for dealing with them is dissociation. This is especially clear in Ghosts of Mississippi, in which Bobby's involvement in the De La Beckwith trial leads to his divorce from his wife Dixie, removing him from the influence of her wealthy, racist family. In A Time to Kill, Jake's in-laws make only a brief appearance; he is not heavily influenced by them, but his wife is, and her return to him after having fled to her parents' home marks the moment when she begins to support him in his defense of Carl Lee. The point can be overstated, but she performs the act of dissociation on Jake's behalf. Also, there is another privileged white person in this film: the assistant District Attorney, Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), who prosecutes the case. Buckley is politically ambitious and is concerned about the case only as it furthers or hinders his ambitions. He is also amoral, succeeding in stacking the jury by using his influence to acquire prospective juror lists which are supposed to be sealed. In winning the case, Jake triumphs over the upper-class white lack of concern for people of color personified in Buckley.
We have already met the second type of white person Bobby and Jake must deal with: the poor white trash who, in contrast to the relatively passive acceptance of their racial privilege shown by affluent whites, are active agents of racist repression and violence. A Time to Kill is full of such characters: the two rapists; the brother of one of the rapists, Freddie Cobb, played with a constant sneer by Keifer Sutherland, who calls in the Ku Klux Klan to harass Jake and his allies; Freddie's Klan buddies, to a man poorly groomed, poorly-dressed, and extra-sweaty in the Mississippi heat ; and the Bad Cop, secretly a Klansman, who can be spotted instantly as a bad guy because of his sneer and his constant habit of chewing gum with his mouth open. Byron De La Beckwith, in Ghosts of Mississippi, is a little trickier to pigeon-hole; he is often shown on the porch of his spacious, attractive home, suggesting that he is at least comfortable economically, and he is often clean and well-groomed. But his sneer is ever-present, and his language marks him as a racist without subtlety. He talks about white men being put on earth to "rule the dusky races," and, in a fairly typical speech, tells Bobby DeLaughter why he won't shoot a deer: "A deer, Mr. DeLaughter, is a beautiful animal--one of God's creatures. I would never kill a deer. A nigger, on the other hand, is another matter entirely." His unrefined accent, his Klan affiliation, the bright red suit jacket he wears to testify in court, and his failure to couch his racist rhetoric in comfortable paternalistic cliches--to say nothing of his murder of Medgar Evers--all mark him as "trashy," even if there are hints that he is not poor.
The racism of these characters is overt and violent. While the upper-class white characters can be faulted, unlike Bobby and Jake, for not recognizing racism and fighting it, the Really Bad Racists are these trashy rapists, Klansmen, and killers. Dissociation from these characters is not enough; Bobby and Jake must deal with them more harshly. Bobby must successfully prosecute De La Beckwith, removing him from society through life imprisonment, and Jake must make the rapists' lives seem to be worth so little that their murder--brutal, premeditated, and committed in the courthouse with police officers, lawyers, and journalists as witnesses--is not a crime and need not be punished.
The pattern, then, in these films that purport to deal sensitively with issues of great importance to African-Americans, is this: a well-meaning but uninformed white man is awakened from his ignorance through an act of brutality committed against a person of color. He becomes sensitized to racial issues and a champion of the rights of African-Americans, but in the process must dissociate himself from whites who are higher on the social ladder and have therefore benefited more from racism, and destroy or cast out whites who are lower on the social ladder and who carry out the violent acts that enforce racism.
This structure seems calculated to produce a particular effect in white audiences. First, the quick movement of the films away from black characters suggests that white concerns are always central. In A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey's daughter Tonya has been raped, suffering injuries so severe that she comes near death and will never fully recover, having lost the ability to bear children. Further, through Carl Lee's act of revenge, his family has been deprived of a stable provider who had worked at the same job for twenty years. Yet our attention and concern is focused on Jake, Carl Lee's white lawyer. Admittedly, Jake suffers during the film: his marriage is strained because his wife does not support his involvement in the case, he receives death threats, a cross is burned on his lawn, his daughter is harassed by classmates, a bomb is planted at his home, his secretary's husband is beaten and dies from his wounds, the law student Ellen Roarke (Sandra Bullock) who is helping Jake with the case is kidnapped by the Klan, and a second cross-burning results in the destruction of his home (notice that even the acts that harm others, like the beating of the secretary's husband and the kidnapping of Ellen Roarke, are seen as acts of intimidation aimed at Jake). In Ghosts of Mississippi, Bobby suffers a nearly identical set of harassments: he receives death threats, his children are harassed by their classmates, his marriage fails, a bomb threat is called in to his house, his car is vandalized. That the violence in Ghosts does not escalate to include deaths and the total destruction of property is no doubt because the film is somewhat constrained by the facts of the case.
With the exceptions of the murder of Medgar Evers and the rape of Tonya Hailey, each of which is focused on for only the first few minutes of movies that run approximately two-and-a-half hours each, racially motivated violence in these films is directed against white people who are acting as allies to people of color. Though instances of Klan violence against black people are alluded to, they are not dramatized as instances of Klan violence against whites are, suggesting not only that white people's concerns are central, but that white people are more at risk from the KKK than black people are.
Interestingly, both Jake and Bobby also frame their decisions to pursue these cases in self-interested terms. Neither suggests that his involvement stems from disinterested concern for African-Americans in general or for the specific African-Americans involved in the case. Bobby decides to pursue the prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith, after first dismissing the possibility as "ridiculous," because he notices parallels between himself and Medgar Evers: both have three children, and Bobby is thirty-seven years old, the age Evers was at his death. When Bobby calls Myrlie Evers to deliver the impassioned speech that will finally convince her to trust him and to give him the essential evidence she has been keeping for thirty years, the bulk of his speech is devoted to a litany of his suffering since he began investigating. "I'm gonna ride this thing to the finish line, or collapse headin' in that direction," he tells her. The case has become a personal endurance test for Bobby; seeing it through will be a triumph of his will and proof of his commitment. Bobby never suggests that his motivation is justice for Medgar Evers or sympathy for Myrlie Evers' thirty-year commitment to the case. Indeed, her efforts to bring De La Beckwith to trial a third time are mentioned but not dramatized, and she is portrayed as an affluent woman living in comfort, even luxury, happily surrounded by her second husband, her children, and her grandchildren.
Jake is also motivated primarily by concerns about himself. The day before he kills his daughter's rapists, Carl Lee Hailey hints about his plans to Jake. Although Jake's wife encourages him to tell the sheriff, Jake does not, and later in the film he reveals that his motivation for defending Carl Lee comes partly from this lapse on his part. He says, again because he has a daughter and thus can identify personally with Carl Lee's feelings, that he secretly wanted Carl Lee to kill the rapists. "It's not just Carl Lee I'm trying to get off," he says. For Carl Lee, an acquittal means a return to his family and community, and even life itself, as it is assumed that Carl Lee will be executed if found guilty. For Jake, an acquittal is a balm for his guilty conscience--yet no one in the film points out to Jake that his wishing the rapists dead is a mere nothing compared to Carl Lee's killing of them, or that his suffering with his guilty conscience is a drop in the bucket compared to what Carl Lee stands to lose. Jake never says, "I can't bear to think of Carl Lee dying, and his family being deprived of their father," perhaps because it never occurs to him to think of it at all.
Likewise, it is not Jake's concern for the brutalized Tonya Hailey that leads him to wish the rapists dead and to defend her father; it is his concern for his own daughter. The night of the rape, he is badly shaken, telling his wife that he keeps imagining such a thing happening to their daughter. He is disturbed by the actual rape of Tonya Hailey, but he is more disturbed by the imagined rape of his little girl. His wife also sees the case in these terms. When she returns to him, she tells him, "I thought you took this case to prove you were a big hotshot lawyer, but you took it because if those boys had hurt [our daughter] the way they hurt Tonya, you'd have killed them yourself." Indeed, it is the imagined rape of his own white daughter that he ultimately uses to win the case, leading the jurors through a detailed and graphic description of the rape of Tonya Hailey and then, so near tears that he can hardly speak, telling them: "Now imagine the little girl is white." It is their imagining of the little girl as white that turns the jurors' hearts. This is a deliberate ploy on Jake's part--he means to shock the jury into an awareness of and reaction to their own racism--but its parallel in Jake's own story is never challenged or commented on by the film.
The careful placement of Jake and Bobby in relation to whites of higher and lower social classes also sends a carefully crafted message to white audiences, a message of exoneration. White audiences are invited to identify with Jake and Bobby, who act always under the best of intentions, whose failings on issues of race can be attributed to ignorance, and who improve themselves when that ignorance is corrected. Racism is located among the wealthy, and, in its more virulent form, among poor whites who perfectly embody the redneck, poor white trash stereotype of rural poor white people as dirty, drunken, incestuous, corrupt, vicious, and murderous. That both the poor white trash characters and the wealthy white racist characters are drawn as such overt, one-dimensional caricatures prevents any possibility of mistaken identification with and sympathy for these characters that might lead white audiences to feel responsible for racism. "You're not the guilty ones," the movies tell white audiences. "You're the good guys."
As good guys, Jake and Bobby must overcome black people's distrust of them. Bobby must win Myrlie Evers' trust, and experiences frustration when his weekly phone calls to her reporting on the progress of his investigation into the case are not greeted warmly. At least Bobby acknowledges that she might have some reason to distrust white people, and his girlfriend (the good girlfriend he acquires after his divorce from Dixie) tells him that the problem may lie with him, that he has failed, by concealing from Myrlie Evers that he has recovered the lost murder weapon, to trust her first. But Bobby is later vilified by black leaders as a racist liar when his cover-up of the finding of the murder weapon is revealed by a newspaper reporter. Bobby's mother says to him at one point in the film, "If you think they appreciate anything we've done for them, you're wrong," and we are meant to understand her as a patronizing wealthy white racist, but in scenes of black leaders calling press conferences to savage Bobby the movie is singing the same tune.
Jake Brigance must also deal with black political leaders in the form of NAACP lawyers and a nationally-known black preacher who come in from outside hoping to make political hay from Carl Lee's case. Carl Lee rejects their offer of help (while craftily ensuring that the money they have raised in his behalf goes to his family for food and to Jake for legal expenses) and retains Jake as his lawyer, an action that suggests that he trusts Jake more than he trusts black leaders. Certainly, it suggests that to Jake, who is shocked later in the film when Carl Lee tells him otherwise. Carl Lee tells Jake during a discussion of the case that he chose Jake as his lawyer not because Jake is different from other white people, but because he is exactly like them: "You think you ain't because you eat at Claude's [a black restaurant] and you out there trying to get me off on the TV talkin' about black and white, but you just like the rest of them. When you look at me, you don't see a man, you see a black man."
Jake replies, "Carl Lee, I am your friend," and Carl Lee says in disgust, "We ain't no friends, Jake. We on different sides of the line. I ain't never seen you in my part of town. I bet you don't even know where I live." He goes on to tell Jake, "You my secret weapon because you one of the bad guys."
This scene is a turning point for Jake; he formulates his emotionally-charged closing argument based on Carl Lee's assertion that Jake is just like the mostly-white jurors and knows how they think, and indeed, Jake wins the case by leading them through the very thought process that led him to defend Carl Lee. But we also learn in the closing scenes of the film that Carl Lee has been wrong to distrust Jake. Carl Lee realizes it when he hears the brilliant closing argument, though Jake cuts off Carl Lee's praise with, "I'm the enemy, remember." Later, Jake takes his family to Carl Lee's house for barbecue, although from the surprise on the faces of Carl Lee and his wife we infer that they were not expected. In this way, Jake proves that he does, in fact, know where Carl Lee lives. Both movies play on black distrust of white motives, but end by suggesting that such distrust is unfair to the good white guys who do so much for black people.
The lesson about racism that is taught to white audiences is this: rich white people benefit from racism; poor white people enforce racism; and well-meaning middle-class white people like us are unfairly blamed for racism. One reason this formulation works is that almost everyone perceives themselves as middle class. White audiences also learn that racism is easy to spot and define. The rhetoric of racism employed by wealthy whites follows easily recognized formulas: "They don't appreciate what we've done for them, integration has ruined the South, they're destroying our way of life," with the occasional "nigger" thrown in as a marker of callousness. The racism of poor whites also follows easily recognized formulas: threats of violence, acts of violence, and rhetoric advocating violence. The racism of the middle class is not racism at all, but only looks like racism until black people figure out they've been wrong about the middle-class hero. Middle-class white people like Jake and Bobby need feel no guilt or responsibility for racism, but they certainly do deserve praise for all they've done to advance the cause of equality and freedom.
These films are by no means alone in construing racial issues in the Unites States in such a way that white people are comforted and exonerated. In Fantasies of the Master Race, Ward Churchill traces similar patterns in film and TV that have let whites off the hook for the oppression of Native Americans. He traces, for instance, the treatment of George Armstrong Custer in films from an initial tendency to idolize him as a hero to a new characterization of Custer as a psychopathic villain. The change, Churchill says, took place in the 70s, when people were becoming more sensitized to Native American issues and to the history of colonization and oppression in North America. The new characterization of Custer could be seen as a more accurate depiction of history, but Churchill argues that, in concert with other representations, it serves instead to create "the appearance of a fundamental polarity within Euroamerican society" (189). In other words, it divides white people into bad guys and good guys. Custer is a bad guy, but we are always the good guys. Churchill writes:
The result is in no sense a transformation but instead a much more potent reconfiguring of the Euroamerican status quo.... [Such representations] provide a convenient surrogate reality allowing whites to symbolically dissociate themselves from the intolerable ugliness of 'Custerism'...thereby 'feeling good about themselves' even while continuing to participate in and benefit from the very socioeconomic order Custerism has produced. (189-90)
Clearly, a similar division is taking place in the tripartite representation of white people in films like Ghosts of Mississippi and A Time to Kill, and the division serves a similar purpose. But the class-based nature of the division in Ghosts and especially in A Time to Kill is significant, particularly the assigning of virulent, criminal racism to white-trash characters, which is pervasive in A Time to Kill and present to a lesser extent in Ghosts of Mississippi.
According to Annalee Newitz and Matthew Wray, the expression "white trash" marks the people so described as both white and as "something that must be discarded, expelled, and disposed of in order for whiteness to achieve and maintain social dominance" (169). They go on to say that "white trash" is both an economic identity and "something imaginary or iconic"--in other words, the stereotype and the constellation of behaviors, like incest, criminality, and violence, associated with it (171). The imaginary or iconic quality of the white trash identity allows middle-class whites to blame one subgroup of white people for behaviors that occur at all class levels, racism being included in those behaviors. Having ascribed those behaviors to that group, middle-class whites can then justify themselves in casting that group out of society, purifying themselves in the process (171). This pattern of scapegoating is precisely what is played out in Ghosts of Mississippi and A Time to Kill, and serves to buttress a privileged, powerful white identity.
Not everyone would support this view of these films, however. Jamie Barlowe, for instance, acknowledges that those who have criticized Ghosts of Mississippi for its focus on whites are "in one sense...accurate" (35), but goes on to suggest that the film "represent[s] from a white perspective Medgar Evers's warning about the 'failure of the so-called decent or moderate white person to take a positive and uncompromising stand'" and effectively illustrates "the profound depth, nature, and extent of racism in the 1990s in Jackson, Mississippi" (36). Barlowe stops short of actually praising the film, but is dismissive of criticism of it based on its focus on whites.
However, Barlowe's reading of the film misses several important points. For Barlowe, whiteness in the film is marked as privileged and well-to-do but defensive about the past and blind to racism. This is a good description of the upper-class whites in the film, but the character of Byron De La Beckwith complicates the argument in ways Barlowe does not acknowledge. The characteristics that mark him as not of the middle or upper classes are not mentioned. Further, Barlowe claims that De La Beckwith's statement that "God put the white man here to rule over all the dusky races" is an accurate summary of the positions of all the white people in the film, without noting the ways that De La Beckwith's rhetoric and the accent in which he delivers such pronouncements set him apart from, for instance, Bobby DeLaughter's in-laws, wife, and parents. The complications of white privilege suggested by class divisions among whites in the film are apparently invisible to Barlowe.
Likewise, Barlowe overlooks evident flaws in the factuality of the film. For instance, Barlowe takes at face value the film's assertion that Myrlie Evers and her children were watching TV, on which John F. Kennedy was giving a speech about civil rights, at the time of Medgar Evers' assassination. The ironic juxtaposition of Kennedy's speech, which provides an on-going voice-over for the scene, and Evers' death is one of many artful and affecting juxtapositions director Rob Reiner constructs. However, like some of Reiner's other juxtapositions, this one is factually suspect: later in the film, when Myrlie Evers is testifying at De La Beckwith's trial, she says that Medgar Evers was shot at about midnight. Those of us who remember television before the days of cable and 24-hour news channels may find it hard to believe that a major presidential address would have been broadcast in the middle of the night. In another example, Reiner juxtaposes De La Beckwith's triumphal homecoming parade after his second trial ends in a hung jury with Myrlie Evers weeping and on her knees as she scrubs her husband's blood off her front porch. The emotional impact of the juxtaposition is undeniable, but one wonders how long two trials take; this is apparently the same length of time that it took Myrlie Evers to get around to washing her porch (though one also wonders that her family and friends would let her undertake such a grisly task herself). It can be argued that Ghosts of Mississippi is a better movie than A Time to Kill precisely because director Reiner is so skilled at these kinds of affecting juxtapositions; it is ironic that the very qualities that make the movie effective as a film undermine its claim to factual truth.
In his book on the making of the film and its reception, Willie Morris defends the factuality of the film. A Variety reviewer had challenged some of the film's assertions, among them that Kennedy's civil rights speech took place on the same night as Medgar Evers' murder. "It has to be pointed out," Morris writes in response, "that JFK's speech did occur on the night of the Evers murder" (244). This entire exchange seems somewhat beside the point to me. To verify that Kennedy's speech and Evers' murder took place on the same night requires only a quick check of reference works. But Reiner's decision to fudge the timing so that Myrlie Evers and her pajama-clad children could be torn away from Kennedy's inspiring words by the sound of gunshots is debatable in its claim to integrity.
Morris represents the filmmakers as thinking about issues of factuality versus artistry, summed up as "Either you tell a story exactly as it happened, with the possible loss of dramatic moments, or you fictionalize events to engross the audience" (241-2). Reiner and screenwriter Lewis Colick admit they fictionalized a good deal, for instance giving the Bobby DeLaughter character courtroom scenes, such as an important cross-examination, which were actually carried out by one of his colleagues, because in a movie the focus has to stay on the hero. "It's not a documentary," Morris quotes Colick as saying. "It's a work of art" (242). A work of art that begins with the words, "This story is true" emblazoned on a dramatically empty screen.
One effective way to test a hypothesis is to offer a comparison. I want to make the case that A Time to Kill and Ghosts of Mississippi are constructed to offer white audiences a comforting and exonerating view of themselves with regard to racism, but if the characters I've been looking at also show up in films that maintain their focus on black characters and are intended for a black audience, then a more complex understanding of their function is required. For this comparison, I looked at two movies, Shaft, a 1971 film about a black private eye in New York, and Soul Food, a 1997 ensemble drama about a black family coping with the death of the family matriarch.
Tellingly, neither the white-trash racist, the upper-class white racist, nor the well-intentioned white guy shows up in these films, suggesting that the interrelationship of these characters does indeed serve a function for white audiences but not for black audiences, since these characters--and the dynamic between them--which are so essential in films aimed at whites can be left out of films aimed at blacks. But of course Shaft and Soul Food have their own racial and class dynamics which bear examining.
In Shaft, Richard Roundtree plays the title role, a hip, cool, leather-jacket wearing black private detective in New York City. Like all private detectives in the movies, he has an antagonistic but respectful relationship with local police, embodied in this case in Vic (Charles Cioffi), a white lieutenant of police who is involved in the same case as Shaft. On the surface, Shaft has an attitude toward Vic, cooperating only reluctantly with him. But he does cooperate with Vic, off and on, and Vic cooperates with Shaft in even bigger ways, for instance pretending not to have found Shaft when he has been sent to bring him into custody. "I'll take you in," he tells Shaft, "if I find you. Are you home?" "Hell, no!" Shaft answers, and Vic leaves Shaft's apartment.
The racial dynamic between Vic and Shaft is marked by Shaft's playing up of race. "We talk mush-mouth" he tells Vic, and in answer to the question of why two guys from an organized crime ring in Harlem would have come downtown looking for Shaft, says "I'm teaching them the Soul Brothers hand-shake." "It warms my heart to see you so concerned about us minority folks," he tells Vic on another occasion, and "My Negro friends don't walk around with rabbit foots anymore." Shaft also plays on the stereotype of the sexual black man, telling both Vic and another cop, "I'm going to get laid," or "I got laid" (in both instances, he is telling the truth--he is both playing on and playing out the stereotype). Shaft plays on racial stereotypes he assumes Vic holds, but the film offers little evidence that Vic or other white cops indeed hold stereotyped ideas. The only hint is in another cop's telling Vic, "you got to lean on his kind," meaning Shaft, but while "his kind" has unmistakable resonances with racist language, in context it's ambiguous. It might mean black men, or it might mean independent private detectives, or it might mean both.
The movie closes with a telephone conversation between Vic and Shaft. The last line of the film is a joke Shaft makes building on their earlier relationship; it is the very line Vic has used earlier to tease Shaft about his treatment of a woman he has just had sex with and then kicked out of bed. The closing image of the film, then, is of the affectionate (albeit very sublimated) bond between Vic and Shaft.
Shaft also has good relations with white people on the street in his neighborhood, from a chestnut vendor and a blind newsagent to a hippie who helps Shaft scam the Mafia creeps who are watching his apartment and a gay bartender who gives over his bar to Shaft when Shaft needs a cover identity. Shaft's relations with black people, on the other hand, are contentious and racially charged. The Harlem crime boss who hires Shaft to find his kidnapped daughter employs goons who call Shaft "Snow White," and the movement blacks he teams up with accuse him repeatedly of being a "Tom."
It would be too much to suggest that this pattern means that black people cause each other more trouble than white people do; perhaps what it suggests instead is that, white people's narcissism notwithstanding, this film is more concerned with black interrelationships than with black/white relations. Even racism is portrayed in the film as a relatively diffuse, generalized threat ("the honky government," one black character calls it) rather than an immediate danger. It's true that the Italian Mafia guys who have kidnapped the girl Shaft is trying to find call Shaft "nigger" and make Soul Food references, but their racism turns out to be the weakness that undoes them. Shaft and his movement allies are able to infiltrate their hotel relatively invisibly by passing as staff. One of the Mafia guards, mistaking Shaft's ally for a waiter, orders a Coke, and by bringing it to him the "waiter" is able to infiltrate all the way to the door of the room where the kidnapped girl is being held.
White audiences might come out of Shaft with the idea that black people do not think about them all the time, and that could be disturbing, given that white people are used to being the center of attention. However, there are a couple of comforting touches in Shaft. First, good and bad white people are easy to sort out: the Italian Mafia guys are the only white people in the movie who resort to racial slurs. Also, although Shaft plays on the racism he imagines Vic subscribes to, the film shows us little to suggest that Vic deserves it. Vic is the good white guy who is falsely blamed for other white people's racism, a trait he shares with Bobby DeLaughter and Jake Brigance.
Very briefly, Soul Food is also a film that maintains its focus on its black characters. In this case, it keeps its attention on the family of three grown daughters who have lost their mother, and on their relationships with their husbands and children. There are interesting class issues in the film, for instance in the vilification of the lightest-skinned daughter, a successful lawyer whose marriage is the only one that doesn't reach the end of the film intact, and there are bad black characters, particularly the well-to-do ex-boyfriend of one of the women, who causes a good deal of trouble. But those class issues are played out within the black family. White people figure very little in the film, which has no continuing white characters. White characters are nameless and fill a role for a scene or two: potential employer, supervisor, doctor. The potential employer rejects the character Kenny's job application because of his status as an ex-con. "We'll call you," he keeps repeating, meaning, of course, that they won't. This character is played as a fat-cat and could be read as a racist, denying a job to a qualified black man, but again it's ambiguous in the context of the film. Kenny's status as a ex-con complicates the white employer's response, which could be read as simple racism, as prejudice against the formerly incarcerated, or as both. The film denies us an easy answer, and offers as a counterpoint the white supervisor at the printshop that finally does hire Kenny, who praises his skill and productivity. Soul Food could be productively analyzed for what it says to black people about issues of class, education, and upward mobility, but it seems to have little to say to or about white people.
As in Shaft, both the overt, brutal racism of poor whites and the patronizing racism of wealthy whites are absent from Soul Food. This is at first surprising, as one might expect that films about and for black people would be concerned with such a fundamental fact of black existence as racism. That these films do not foreground racism perhaps implies that, for black people, racism is a known quantity, not requiring further explanation. For many white people, on the other hand, racism is still a mystery. Thus, films like A Time to Kill and Ghosts of Mississippi illustrate and define racism for their white audiences, constructing racism as both easily identifiable and perpetrated by people who, although white, are nevertheless not like us. Through careful class-based division of white people into good guys and bad guys, these films perform a slick trick, simultaneously introducing whites to the horrors of racism and reassuring them that it isn't their fault.
Barlowe, Jamie. "The 'Not-free' and 'Not-me': Constructions of Whiteness in 'Rosewood' and 'Ghosts of Mississippi.'" Canadian Review of American Studies 28.3 (1998): 31-46.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 3rd ed. New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994.
Churchill, Ward. Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema, and the Colonization of American Indians. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998.
Ghosts of Mississippi. Dir. Rob Reiner. Perf. Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods. Columbia, 1996.
hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Morris, Willie. The Ghosts of Medgar Evers: A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood. New York: Random House, 1998.
Newitz, Annalee, and Matthew Wray. "What is 'White Trash'? Stereotypes and Economic Conditions of Poor Whites in the United States." Whiteness. Ed. Mike Hill. New York: New York UP, 1997. 168-184.
Shaft. Dir. Gordon Parks. Perf. Richard Roundtree, Charles Cioffi, Moses Gunn. MGM, 1971.
Sitkoff, Howard. "Ghosts of Mississippi (motion picture review)." Sight & Sound Dec.1997: 1177-8.
Soul Food. Dir. George Tillman, Jr. Perf. Vanessa Williams, Vivica Fox, Nia Long, Irma P. Hall. Fox, 1997.
A Time to Kill. Dir. Joel Schumacher. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Matthew McConaughey. MGM, 1996.
Wrathall, John. "A Time to Kill (motion picture review)." Sight & Sound Oct. 1996: 54-5.
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