Memory believes before knowing remembers.
Forgetting is just another kind of remembering.
(Robert Penn Warren)
Film history cannibalises images, expropriates themes and techniques, and decants them into the contents of our collective memory. Movie memories are influenced by the (inter)textuality of media styles – Fredric Jameson has gone so far as to argue that such styles displace ‘real’ history. The Civil Rights Movement made real history but the Movement struggle was also a media event, played out as a teledrama in homes across the world in the 1950s and 1960s, and it is being replayed as a cinematic event. The interrelationship of popular memory and cinematic representations finds a telling case study in the civil rights era in the American South. This chapter assesses what films made after the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s express about the failure of the Movement to sustain and be sustained in its challenges to inequality and racist injustice. It argues that popular cultural currency relies on invoking images present in the sedimented layers of civil rights preoccupations but that in the 1980s and 1990s movies also tap into ‘structures of feeling’. Historical verisimilitude is bent to include what Tom Hayden called in 1962 ‘a reassertion of the personal’ as part of the political, but it is also bent to re-present the Movement as a communal struggle in which ordinary southern white people are much more significant actors in the personal and even the public space of civil rights politics than was actually the case. Historical facts as we retrieve and interpret them are only one facet of the movie-made Movement.
In a reception-driven analysis, film genres and sub-genres do not exist until they become necessary. It would be impossible to argue that something called ‘civil rights cinema’ existed before the end of the 1980s, by which time a provisional sub-genre of feature films had begun to develop around race and rights with reference out to the Movement. In the 1960s films that examined civil rights struggles in any guise at all were usually reviewed as ‘small town movies’ or ‘southern melodrama’ or ‘social problem pictures’. Over the last two decades of the twentieth century, there has developed a critically self-conscious body of work on commemoration and retrieval and it is during this period that, as Richard Rorty has observed, ‘the novel, the movie and the TV program . . . gradually but steadily replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress’.1 Before this, movies with plots incorporating civil rights struggles could turn up in any popular genre from westerns to courtroom dramas, and even comedies.
Slowly a small but distinct body of films is developing in which Movement successes are celebrated and strategies and losses interrogated – Freedom Song (2000), Boycott (2001) and The Rosa Parks Story (2002), for example. But these films, like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and A Huey P. Newton Story (2001), fall outside of the broad (predominantly white) mainstream cinematic tradition. More usually, black activists (CORE and SNCC) and protagonists (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr.) have been caught in an epistemological drift, their stories dispersed and scattered through narratives in which white protagonists undergo a rites of passage or racial conversion. Most white directors and screenwriters espouse a liberal reformist vision in working out private salvations. But as Martin Luther King Jr. opined in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), liberalism can be ‘all too sentimental concerning human nature’, leaning towards a ‘false idealism’. Films made in our own historical moment tend to ensure that civil rights cinema becomes a cinema of integration and reconciliation. They function in a postmodern imaginary as socially symbolic texts in which racial tensions that remain unresolved in life find temporary resolution in narrative space. To do this, they focus on relationships between individuals, reducing larger historical events to personal histories, domesticating public memory of the Civil Rights Movement.
Memory and catechism
Shared cultural events are always ‘historical’, as George Lipsitz has argued in Time Passages (1990), discussing the ways in which television in the 1950s naturalised the nuclear family as a touchstone of modern American society. Collective memory functions to coordinate and to fabricate national identity and unity. Movie memories circulate among producers, directors, and audiences; an archival memory-store of civil rights iconography, or an ‘arcade’ of motifs, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s terminology, finds space in the popular cultural imaginary that is contemporary cinema. Memories tied to place as well as period can provide momentum in and of themselves. Carolyn Goodman, Andrew’s mother, drove the road from Meridian in 1989, alone in the Mississippi night, still trying to come to terms with what happened to her civil rights worker son, twenty-five years after his brutal murder in 1964. In 1991 the gravestone of James Chaney, the black activist murdered along with Goodman and Schwerner, was defaced: a bullet fired into the photograph of the deceased. As I write, the Mississippi Freedom Summer murder case may be reopened so that those defendants acquitted by a hung (white) jury in 1967 may be re-investigated. The history of the Civil Rights Movement is so recent that dramatic personal re-enactments, historic cases of justice deferred, and public commemorations proliferate.
In 2000, President Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and civil rights leaders retraced the Selma to Montgomery March that turned into ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. They marked the 35th anniversary on Edmund Pettus Bridge, itself a solid signifier of the Movement past in popular memory. Commemorations reinforce the significance of the Movement as mythology and as catechism, as well as history. Heritage tourism is the fastest growing feature of the leisure market according to Angela DaSilva, who founded the National Black Tourism Network in 1996: ‘Everyone wants to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge . . . And everyone wants to do it singing “We Shall Overcome” at the top of their lungs’.2 In fact, a number of TV shows have picked up on this fascination from Quantum Leap to I’ll Fly Away. Most recently in an episode called ‘Revisionism’, The Education of Max Bickford (CBS February 2002) included an African American professor who misrepresented herself as a Freedom Rider. College principal (Regina Taylor) admonishes her, ‘People died. You can’t take ownership of that. It disrespects their memory’, and in 1999 in an episode of Touched By An Angel (CBS April 1999) called ‘Black Like Monica’, Rosa Parks played herself as ‘mother of the Civil Rights Movement’ and honoured speaker when a small town in Illinois celebrates discovering a stop on the Underground Railroad. Popular memory fuses the pedagogical with the affective. It prefers to mythologise Rosa Parks as a tired seamstress rather than a trained activist and secretary of the Montgomery chapter of National Association of Colored People (NAACP). Those like Irene Morgan and Claudette Colvin, who took a stand on segregated public transportation and who refused to relinquish their seats to whites before Parks, have fallen out of history and are only just beginning to receive critical attention. The intervening years would seem to allow more creative space in which to interpret the past in order to deepen historical consciousness and yet movies often eschew hermeneutical struggles with form and changing definitions of heroism, tending to follow realistic conventions in ‘authenticating’ rather than re-visioning the Civil Rights Movement. Critical realism is not inevitably the most effective way of representing recent history in ways that continue to touch the popular imagination though, as television has shown. However, many working in history and cinema still betray in their work on film a reductive focus on fidelity – even historians David Herlihy and Natalie Zemon Davis, who have each acted as consultants for movies. Herlihy displays a keen awareness of the ‘gaps, ambiguities and prejudices’ in historical resources but he fails to see how films can ‘carry’ the same critical apparatus as historical texts – when they display the same aporia, they are dismissed as erroneous rather than historiography. Disciplinary essentialism of this kind fails to recognise movies as culturally conditioned productions embedded in the fabric of film history, or that the struggle with their accuracy can never be entirely separated from their ‘ritual function’.3 History has less epistemological hold on movies than memory.
Alice Walker’s first published essay in the American Scholar in 1967 was an assessment of the Civil Rights Movement subtitled ‘What Good Was It?’, in which she described the Movement as ‘a call to life’ for people like herself who did not exist ‘either in books or in films or in the government of their own lives’.4 Much was invested in a defining social movement in the 1960s but just a generation later the Movement seems to find its continued meaning in images (Martin Luther King at the March on Washington; dogs and water cannons turned on black children in Birmingham; Autherine Lucy or Elizabeth Eckford braving rabid white racists alone to enrol in school; George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door). Walter Benjamin has warned that ideas can evaporate in images because ‘every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably’, and Fredric Jameson’s critique of recycled clichés includes the recognition that time is fragmented into ‘a series of perpetual presents’.5
An obvious problem for filmmakers is ‘receding concreteness’, to borrow Adorno’s phrasing. In (re)connecting with a disappearing history, civil rights film narratives are typically recursive, but what they actually suffer from is ‘presentism’, whereby the pressures of the present distort our understanding of the past.6 Character-led dramas (often based on autobiographical novels, and memoir – like Crisis at Central High, Heart of Dixie, and Passion for Justice: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story) promote a single monologic point of view to create what has ubiquitously come to be known as a ‘useable past’, in which resolution and reconciliation are valued over the propensity to grasp what might have been important to black and white southerners in the civil rights era. The priority becomes what is important to producers and audiences at the moment of the film’s production; directors and screenwriters shape the tale into what James Snead calls ‘replacement history’. For example, Crisis at Central High (1981) never mentions the role of Daisy Bates, head of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and the leading organiser during the Little Rock crisis of 1957–58. Rather, a ‘Mrs Richardson’ fulfils her role in two short scenes. Sensitive to public agendas that include the redemption of whiteness and white liberals, the movie is based on teacher Elizabeth P. Huckaby’s journals in which a conservative moderate transforms into a spokeswoman for integration and takes a stand. This is an important story but since the Little Rock Nine are named and represented (though oddly Elizabeth Eckford is also renamed), one wonders what purpose there is in eliding the name of one of the most respected civil rights leaders in order to tell it. To foreground whiteness is often to withhold blackness; partial stories masquerade as objective understatement, or ‘simply what happened’ when framed by supposedly unemotional, fair-minded white professionals – like Huckaby, newspaper publisher Hazel Brannon Smith, and the student based on novelist Ann Rivers Siddons in Heart of Dixie.7
Synoptic cinema: the public/private distinction
Civil rights cinema does not sit comfortably within theories of genrification. For Rick Altman, genrification always operates dialectically, transforming an existing set of films until they are ‘mashed, twisted and reshaped into unrecognizably new forms’.8 Recent films share few semantic or syntactic elements with movies made in the 1960s. Nor are they ‘new’. Instead they vault back, sidestepping brave little films like The Intruder (1961) and Nothing But A Man (1964), to reshape liberal social conscience movies like Pinky (1949), Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Lost Boundaries (1949), Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), that are not ‘about’ the Movement at all. As Ralph Ellison opines, these films are ‘not about Negroes at all; they are about what whites think and feel about Negroes’.9 The tendency is to retell the movement as individual morality tales for a nation in which black and white individuals remain disconcertingly separate. While James Snead has argued that film ‘translates the personal into the communal so quickly that elevation of the dominant and the degradation of the subordinate are simultaneous and corporate’, civil rights cinema operates conversely in translating the communal into the personal.10 It is easy to deplore the retreat into the personal as a current ‘fetish’ of mass-market culture. Adrienne Rich, for example, cites TV talk show culture from which the viewer ‘might deduce that all human interactions are limited to individual predicaments . . . personal confessions and revelations’.11 Civil rights feature films of the 1980s and 1990s functioned as the kind of performed naivety Rich describes.
Of the many films one could use for exemplification – from Crisis at Central High to Love Field – The Long Walk Home (1994) is perhaps the clearest in that it domesticates a landmark civil rights struggle, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56. It re-constructs the boycott along a trajectory of the lives of two women during the first weeks of the protest, a black domestic worker, Odessa Cotter (Whoopi Goldberg), and her white middle-class employer, Miriam Thompson (Sissy Spacek). The full significance of the boycott as a demonstration of collective black solidarity remains secondary to the primary focus on the women’s relationship, and in particular on the white woman.12 The development of Miriam’s character from a smiling housewife and upholder of the racial status quo (‘The rest of the world around you is living that way so you just don’t question it’) to a tearful and determined participant in the movement for desegregation provides the narrative impetus of a film. Odessa is carved out as the film’s moral heroine but not its primary subject. If one takes the subject as the character most affected by the ideological construction of the film text, Miriam clearly fulfills that role because the film works as a ‘racial conversion narrative’ in Fred Hobson’s analysis of the memoirs of white southerners who grow up racist but ‘see the light’. Novelist Reynolds Price, for example, allows ‘Now when I see films of the flocking brave faces, black and white, of the early civil rights movement . . . I’m more than sorry that my face is missing’.13 In the 1980s and 1990s Hollywood inserted the missing faces into the civil rights story. White moderates, specifically those whose silence had overwhelmed their hatred for cruelty (Price admits, ‘All these years later . . . my silence offends me’) are delivered up in movies that are really about a desire for forgiveness and regret for the loss of hope in interracial coalitions.
In The Long Walk Home, hope for an enduring reconciliation across racial, economic and class divisions is a considerable weight for a single relationship to carry. Writer John Cork and director Richard Pearce are not uncritical of the paradigmatic formulation of mistress and maid; they deploy it to interrogate the fabric of segregation and as a structural device to investigate the ways in which black women were typically sutured into the lives of white women. However, in foregrounding Miriam, the black struggle is superseded by a narrative deemed to meet the affective needs of a white audience. Miriam’s position, morally satisfying as it is, remains tenuous and untypical. Historically, there were many more women like those who play cards at the bridge club and remain broadly antagonistic to reforms than women like Montgomery’s Virginia Durr, or Juliette Morgan, whose letter to the Advertiser expressed support and deep respect for the black protesters. Morgan was so hounded by angry whites that she finally committed suicide. Cork and Pearce just manage to steer clear of a utopian happy ending to a black and a white woman’s precarious alliance. But, the dominant story remains the white woman’s racial conversion in the face of her husband’s disapproval.
To read the film historiographically is to recognise a series of signifiers of the boycott. A white Montgomerian, Cork painstakingly, if somewhat lyrically, re-presents the atmosphere of a city engaged in a ‘war of wills in the cradle of the Confederacy’, as he casts the conflict between the protesters and their opponents. As factory employees, including Odessa’s husband, gather to read the flyer urging them to boycott the buses on 5 December 1955, the incident of Claudette Colvin refusing to relinquish her seat to a white person is referred to as ‘the Colberg case’, repeating the mistake in the original boycott notices and exemplifying the film’s bid for authenticity at the level of detail. The mayor, W. A. Gayle, and Grover Hall, editor of the Advertiser, are referred to directly and Miriam is seen reading the Advertiser on the first morning of the protest with its headline ‘Extra Police Set For Patrol Work in Trolley Boycott’. Mass meetings at Holt Street Baptist Church are recreated and although Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is typically concealed in a series of cutaway shots, the first speech he delivered as head of the Montgomery Improvement Association rings out for the congregation (‘If we are wrong . . . then the Supreme Court is wrong . . . And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream’). Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers is represented, as is his attendance at the White Citizens Council rally of early January 1956 at which he expressed his support for the Council in general and for its battle against the desegregation of public transport in particular. The reaction of black Montgomerians to the bombing of King’s home is portrayed, as are Commissioner Sellers’ comments at the time. The city of Montgomery itself is textualized in director Richard Pearce’s patterning of empty yellow City Lines buses threading their way to Washington Park and Capitol Heights. The inclement weather of December/January 1955–56 is specifically represented, as Odessa braves the wind and rain to make her way across town to work.
Pearce worked for many years as a documentary cameraman (Woodstock and Hearts and Minds) and at the formal level, The Long Walk Home is naturalistic, the camerawork intended to reveal the historical Montgomery of the 1950s as the small southern town impacts our popular memory. The credits move into a monochrome establishing shot of the town that slips into colour as dawn breaks on another Montgomery morning. The camera sweeps the skyline before swooping down to reveal black domestic workers paying their fare at the front of a bus before dismounting to re-enter at the back, as required under Jim Crow. This archetypal sequence, shots of black people walking to and from work at dawn and dusk, and lining the pavement outside the King house after it is bombed, act as ‘image facts’, units of impression assembled to coalesce in the drive for historical verisimilitude.14 And, I would add, as talismanic motifs of what the Movement struggled to change framed as images in our popular memory.
Clayborne Carson has described the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement as confrontations of good versus evil, and Pearce assembles scenes to locate this feature of the Montgomery struggle; white intransigence, often very vocal and translated into brute force, is opposed by black moral certainty and courageous calm. A pragmatic desire to maintain the domestic status quo that enables her own lifestyle, combined with something close to an altruistic concern for the difficulties her employee encounters in getting across town, propels Miriam to support her domestic of ten years standing when she upholds the boycott. Many white women ignored Mayor Gayle’s demand that they desist from driving their domestics to work. They famously retorted that since he was unprepared to undertake domestic work in their homes himself, they would continue to support those who were. Self-interest and southern tradition were powerful forces which led to white women incidentally and inadvertently aiding the boycott. It is from this position that Miriam shows her support of Odessa. But, a change ensues that spurs Miriam into supporting the boycott itself, beyond the efficacies of her own self-interestedness. This change derives as much, if not more, from her shock and shame at her husband’s reactionary behaviour in aligning himself with his bigoted brother and the White Citizens’ Council, than it does from her developing appreciation of Odessa.
No matter how carefully the boycott has been visually established, it is finally Norman Thompson (Dwight Schultz) who pushes his wife from private sympathy to a public display of support. He is ‘a good husband and a good provider’ turned bad in the classic iconography of civil rights movies. On Christmas Eve he is held in the frame, hugging his two daughters, as they are backlit in such a way that a halo of light arcs around the trio as Miriam looks on with a smile. But he is caught up in the recalcitrance of his peers; his manhood challenged by his younger brother. Besieged, Norman follows the morally reprehensible path in a film that is carefully coded around ethical decision-making; unlike Odessa’s daughter, who rides the bus because she places her own desires before the needs of the community for a brief aberrant moment, he does not learn from his mistakes. The final shots of Norman are of his helplessness in the face of white violence against his wife. He gazes hopelessly at Miriam as she and their young daughter join the boycotters, and in so doing step outside his jurisdiction.
Despite the sentimental claims of the reviewer for Jet who believes that ‘Suddenly a bond is created and the women finally begin to learn about each other, finding out about each other’s strength and inner beauty’, Odessa continues to refer to her employer as ‘Miss Thompson’ throughout the film.15 Odessa’s character does not change over the course of the narrative. She is self-possessed throughout; progressively more tired but never defeated. She is a paradigm of the ennobled, resolute black citizen who has the decorum and poise that Jo Ann Robinson attributed to Rosa Parks, as signalled in the title of Parks’ memoir, Quiet Strength (1994). In the opening sequence she stands on the bus on her way to work. Her face composed. She is alone. The final freeze-frame is of her face in close-up as she holds her place in the line of passive resistance the black women have formed against the white men who seek to destroy the carpool and humiliate the women who use it. The camera moves laterally as she and Miriam exchange tearful, apprehensive smiles but it is on Odessa’s face – a picture of dignity – that it rests. Her face is the closing image of the film. Odessa is Cork’s tribute to those June Jordan has described as the ‘invisible women’ of the civil rights epoch. The narrator makes this clear: ‘50,000 boycotted the buses in Montgomery. I knew one. Her name was Odessa Cotter’.16
The emphasis shifts towards the white family as soon as it is swiftly understood that the black family will endure. The vicissitudes within the white household become the main subject matter of a white family melodrama located within the context of the boycott. When Miriam first expresses her intention to drive for the carpool, Odessa reminds her of the consequences she will inevitably face: ‘Once you step over there, I don’t know if you can ever step back.’ My reading, therefore, militates against the promotional publicity for the movie that declares, ‘Their forbidden friendship changed a nation’. Despite around ten years of daily contact, there is no evidence in the film of any intimate exchange between the women before the boycott triggers communication. As a direct result of the boycott, however, Norman Thompson’s racist fears of change in the South are made manifest and his college-educated wife is forced either to align herself with his bigotry, ignore it (and Virginia Durr amongst others have repeatedly argued that the Southern lady was often expected to meet a situation by simply acting as if it hadn’t happened),17 or oppose it. That she chooses the latter course is, of course, the salient focus of the film. Miriam is one of Betty Friedan’s suburban housewives for whom ‘the problem with no name’ begins to come into focus as a need to be useful in a community in which her symbolic status as a southern lady can operate to deny her autonomy. The film is actually Miriam’s story about wresting back her autonomy; civil rights history is reshaped into a (white) feminist coming-of-age story.
Mississippi burning and squirming
The recycling and consumption of the past as nostalgia fortifies popular cultural representations of the civil rights era as an integrationist success story in which the racist past is ‘overcome’ with the help of well-meaning whites. But the effect of such films can be much more complicated and far-reaching than first appears. Alan Parker purposefully rewrites history when he decides that the FBI bribing a Klansman to give up details of the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner murders (Delmar Dennis was paid $30,000) does not fit the ideological project that is Mississippi Burning (1988). He tells a different story in which the FBI roots out the corrupt police and Ku Klux Klan members who conspired to kill the civil rights workers. They succeed with a little help from locals with a conscience, a hint of romantic love, a lot of trickery, and some swaggering aggression. When the film is raked over by former activists, historians, journalists, a newly-revived Klan, and the Sheriff in the 1964 murder case, it becomes the stuff of public debate and Parker’s rescripting of events enters popular memory.
In Parker’s version of events, FBI agents Ward, a northerner, Harvard-graduate and serious stickler for playing by the rules (Willem Dafoe), and Anderson, a former Sheriff and volatile, if reconstructed, southern redneck willing to break the rules (Gene Hackman), arrive in fictional Jessup County, Mississippi to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers, two white and one black. Basing the story on history, they discover their bodies in an earthen dam forty-four days after they were reported missing. In the interim, violence ensues at every turn as the FBI cuts through the customs of a small town’s strained race relations; the two main protagonists learn to respect each other; and Anderson’s chivalry towards a law officer’s wife leads to information as to where the dead are buried.
Mississippi Burning was the first Hollywood blockbuster to focus on the Movement. What actually happened in 1964 (and at the ‘Mississippi Burning Trial’ in 1967 when seven men were convicted of civil rights violations rather than murder) may be mutated into a clearer moral geography but it is also recast in a buddy-buddy action-movie format. While this formula secures audiences, Parker became the scourge of the ‘historian cops’, to borrow Robert Sklar’s term, for representing FBI heroics over historical fact. Hollywood’s redescription of events fired up former activists like Executive Director of the NAACP, Benjamin Hooks, and Coretta Scott King who decried the film’s distortion of history, while film critics Vincent Canby and Robert Ebert declared Mississippi Burning the best movie of the year. That Parker represented whites over blacks is not in doubt. In fact, Parker outlines in the Production Notes that ‘the formal energy of our narrative was firmly placed on their [Hackman and Dafoe’s] shoulders’. He realises that the murder of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman is the catalyst for his movie and that ‘hopefully, one day someone will also make a film about the importance of these young men’s lives’.18 In the ‘Notes on the Making of the Film’ that few critics or reviewers cite, Parker allows:
Our film cannot be the definitive film of the black Civil Rights struggle. Our heroes are still white. And in truth, the film would probably never have been made if they weren’t. This is a reflection of our society not the Film Industry. But with all of its possible flaws and shortcomings I hope our film can help to provoke thought and allow other films to be made because the struggle still continues.19
The construction of Parker as a bête noir was exacerbated by reviewers who took little account themselves of the civil rights history they accused Parker of ignoring. Parker fails to put James Chaney in the driving seat in the opening sequence in which the activists’ car is pulled over by their murderers, but Sean French is one of a number of reviewers who fails even to recognise Chaney’s activism when he describes the murder of ‘two white civil rights workers and a local black man’.20 FBI champions of civil rights are set against largely silent and passive black victims of segregation, when J. Edgar Hoover’s baiting of King and his dismissal of civil rights struggles is almost as well documented as the examples of black courage and non-violent resistance that eventually wore down a government reluctant to intervene. What jars most forcibly is that the film condones, even celebrates, the Agency’s use of its own brand of vigilante violence against the Klan because it gets results, echoing the promotion for box office hits like Dirty Harry (1971) and the kind of cop who ‘doesn’t break murder cases, he smashes them’, and reminding us of other hard-hitting mavericks like Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974). Pauline Kael most deplored this feature of the film, describing it as ‘morally repugnant’.21 But critics writing in Time better capture the way in which the movie extrapolates from a historical event while projecting that event back into popular consciousness when they compare Mississippi Burning to Warner Brothers’ exposés of racist violence, like Black Legion and They Won’t Forget, both released in 1937.22
It may be all too easy to over-egg the melodramatic pudding but the 1964 murder case was in and of itself one of the most sensational events of the civil rights era. Mississippi Burning may owe more to film history than social history but FBI agents who discovered the men’s bodies did pose as Klansmen to draw out suspects. Some of the film’s dialogue is excerpted directly from the 1967 trial and, most importantly, the power of the big screen is such that the men acquitted in 1967 were brought back into the social spotlight by the film, even twenty years later. The clearest example is that of Lawrence Rainey who decided to sue Orion Pictures for $8 million when he saw himself portrayed as the paradigmatic Sheriff (‘The character in the movie was a big man like me and he chewed tobacco like I chewed tobacco all the time’).23 The interpenetration of repressed history and the potent images of Mississippi Burning impacted on the southern state that Martin Luther King famously described as ‘sweltering in the heat of injustice’ in ways that echoed the turmoil of the 1960s. On the one hand, civil rights campaigners were prompted into setting up a new voting registration promotion and, on the other, the local Klan instigated a recruitment drive.24 The Klan recruiters were wrong: ten robed men found themselves outnumbered by press. But Philadelphia, Mississippi will always be remembered for the events that happened there in 1964, no matter how much it may try to move on; in 1989 there was a furore over whether to screen Mississippi Burning in the town. While Parker’s film underlines the rage and resentment that can be touched off by intervening in collective memory, it is the crime that remains rooted in place, no matter how it may be rewritten, and the iconography of good and evil that transcends period, as discussion of A Time to Kill (1996) will show.
Real to reel: Canton, Mississippi
‘Welcome to the Home of A Time To Kill, Historic Canton, Mississippi’. This proud statement aligns film and history and blurs distinctions between them. One extra on the movie summarised, ‘For a lot of people here, this is not history, it’s memory.’ When a town becomes a movie set, the movie mythos becomes rooted in place and community. This fusion took place in Canton, twenty-five miles north of Jackson in Mississippi. The town now has a Film Office and its own version of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. It continues to offer tours of the Hollywood sound stage Joel Schumacher and his crew left behind and tells tourists, ‘Tour the office of the young lawyer, Jake, and experience the actual feeling of being part of Hollywood’ (my italics). When Larry Fulton, production designer for A Time To Kill, first came across Canton in a photo book, he says, ‘It looked perfect’. Director Joel Schumacher had emphasised the importance of moving the production to a small southern town: ‘The people that lived in the town needed to be a part of the fabric of the movie. It would feel and smell and look real, and it would add to the integrity of the piece.’25 Tonea Stewart (Gwen Hailey in the film) echoes Richard Rorty when she says ‘There’s almost a ministry in what we’re doing . . . presenting it [the South] as it is’.26 Around six hundred locals took part as extras. John Grisham’s imaginary Clan-ton in the 1989 novel became Canton, with the blessing of the locals. Readers of The Summons (2002) in which Grisham returns to Clanton find Hollywood’s Canton colonising their mental pictures of the southern town.
In the movie, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson), enraged by the rape and attempted murder of his ten-year-old daughter by two red-neck racists on a drunken spree, guns them down inside the seat of southern justice, the courthouse on the square (‘I hope they burn in Hell!’). Carl Lee is freed when his lawyer, Jake Brigance, convinces the jury to ‘see the light’: had a white girl been the victim of black rapists, a white father’s crime of murderous revenge would have been commuted, even validated. Carl Lee’s crime galvanises the small southern town and its factions – black and white. His trial is the movie’s centrepiece and its scenes, including ubiquitous shots on the courthouse steps with the American flag flying proudly, are key to the film’s affective patterning. The courtroom drama is an all-encompassing public ritual of self and national disclosure in which the legacy of legal segregation collapses in ruins: Jake’s final words to Carl Lee are ‘I just thought our children could play together’. Jake feels noble; his position made racially permeable because of the changes wrought by Carl Lee’s acquittal on a town polarised by race. As Allison Graham has pointed out, the function of white criminal lawyers in southern cinema is to act as ‘cinematic historians, researching the past, explaining it, and bringing it to a close’.27
A Time To Kill may initially seem a strange choice as a Movement movie but it borrows heavily from the store of rhetorical and dramaturgical images of racial struggle that coalesce in earlier films. Richard Schickel felt sure that the film would ‘induce a certain sense of déjà vu among veteran viewers. Yes we have intruded in this dust, killed this mockingbird before . . . before we became a full-time culture of irony’.28 It harks back to movies of the 1980s like The Long Walk Home because it involves a racial conversion story but it also relies as much on the tabloid sensationalism and buddy-buddy dynamic of Mississippi Burning as the quieter southern tropes and the courtroom drama of Intruder in the Dust and To Kill A Mockingbird. A Time to Kill is a racially-charged blockbuster, just like Mississippi Burning. Variety correctly judged it could ‘translate into sizeable crossover business’ and Rolling Stone called it a movie ‘in the old potboiler tradition’. Set in the 1990s, it harks back to the 1960s by positing an axiomatic question, ‘Is it possible for a black man to get a fair trial in the South?’ and audience members admit to not realising at first that the events on screen actually take place ‘now’ because they feel tugged back into ‘then’.29 Grisham is clearly aware of the tenacity of images of the unreconstructed South. In the novel when the newly-revived Klan burn a cross in Jake’s yard, he feels as if ‘I’m looking at an old issue of Time magazine’, or ‘a chapter from an old Mississippi history textbook’.30 Or a scene from Parker’s Mississippi Burning.
A Time to Kill’s reception is bound up with a tussle over popular memory of what the Movement sought to change and a pervasive feeling of late twentieth-century declension. In Hollywood’s wake the media came to town. ‘Lights, Camera, Canton!’ (1996) is a 48 Hours special in which CBS anchor and newsman Dan Rather and colleagues visit Canton during the making of the film. They demystify the movie-making process (special effects and casting choices) but perpetuate movie mystique by profiling actors and the director with ‘Canton the movie town’ as backdrop. A year later, Christie Herring and Andre Robinson made Waking in Mississippi (1997), an hour-long documentary, to ask a much more pertinent question about popular memory: ‘Is Hollywood waking Mississippi from its hateful slumber?’ Although CBS spent two segments of their programme on the core scene of A Time To Kill’s race riot, they omitted to pay more than lip service to local views. Waking in Mississippi centres on the local and national media struggle over the town’s representation in local memory. In 1994 National Guardsmen had been alerted to the possibilities of racial strife and rioting in the town square when the town voted to elect its first black mayor, Alice Scott, and found itself forced by a tie to vote a second time. Within the year Schumacher is choreographing the race riot that never happened in that same square for A Time To Kill.
Like Philadelphia, Canton was the site of a voter registration drive in the early 1960s and it has a bloody civil rights history. Dave Dennis and George Raymond, trying to organise voter registration in Canton, lived in danger on a daily basis. Ann Moody left the South for eleven years after seeing a man ‘get his brains spattered all over the church grounds’ in Canton; ‘That was just too much’. The Freedom House was bombed and on one occasion in 1964 someone called to enquire ‘How many did we get?’ In 1967 Mississippi newsman Ira B. Harkey was calling Canton ‘one of the hottest spots in the Negro revolution’. Where Grisham’s imaginary Clanton is located in a county that is 74 per cent white, Canton’s population of 10,000 is around 72 per cent black and has been since the 1960s. Most pertinent in the context of Waking in Mississippi, in January 1964 when blacks boycotted white stores, white businessmen were threatened if they didn’t join the town’s Citizens’ Council. One white businessman, Phil Mullen, refused and his newspaper collapsed as a result. He left the state.31 Thirty years later, in 1994, Christie Herring began to receive messages at Duke where she was studying film. She was informed politely but firmly that it was known that she had not cast her absentee ballot. As a white Canton resident she should cast her vote in the second election to ensure the town re-elected the white mayoral candidate. Herring had decided to vote for Scott but felt her privacy threatened: ‘I was reading Coming of Age in Mississippi at the time and saw 60s elements in everything that was happening; which is to say that I saw discrimination, racism, deliberate intimidation of those who challenged the system, whether that was simply because they were black or because they were white and not staying in line. It was horrific to me at the time.’32 Herring’s experience reminds us that Annie Devine, the Canton activist celebrated in Ann Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968), told Tom Dent in 1991 that just maybe the Civil Rights Movement in Canton had simply ‘opened up the Pandora’s Box of race’, and a local attorney described the town as ‘a generation behind every other place in Mississippi’.33 Herring and co-director Robinson begin to get to grips with the racism that continued to permeate Canton politics and Herring discovered that ‘my struggle with my “role” in the community was not an isolated struggle’. What Herring found most striking was that:
No one seemed to be making connections between the election and A Time To Kill and that really surprised me . . . There were vague references to the 60s by the local and national media but, given what had happened and so recently, I felt that someone must tell that story. I felt a responsibility to do so. I didn’t plan on a two-year project though, until after Andre and I went there the first time, experienced what it was like for us to simply be there as a black man and a white woman, and experienced the carnival that was the A Time To Kill set.34
Waking in Missisippi forms an important intertext with A Time To Kill in that it combines a keen sense of contemporaneity with an unsettled racial past and makes us aware of the shadow relationship between past and present.
By extension, when people play themselves in movies about the civil rights era (Medgar Evers’ children and detective ‘Benny Bennett’ in Ghosts of Mississippi) or when they have a vested interest (the children of organisers Chuck McDew and Dave Dennis were extras in Freedom Song), the distinction between movie-made memories and historical past becomes blurred, especially for the figures who experience both. In A Time to Kill, Dr William Truly, a member of the NAACP plays a member of the NAACP and actress Elizabeth Omilami hits an Imperial Wizard in the face during the scene of confrontation between black supporters of Carl Lee Hailey and the Klan in the town square. She reports that she felt as though she were acting out the release of deep-seated anger. As a child she had marched with her father, Reverend Hosea Williams, a veteran of the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965, who was jailed a total of 135 times for his civil rights activism. As recently as 1987 in predominantly white Forsythe County, marchers led by Reverend Williams were attacked by members of the Klan hurling bricks and bottles. Like Christie Herring, in creative ways Omilami brought personal memories of public history to bear, this time by harnessing the anger she needed to fulfil her role on screen. Similarly, actress Sandra Bullock (Jake’s assistant Ellen Roark in the film) remembers that during the shooting of such scenes for A Time To Kill she felt afraid that when the director shouted ‘Cut’ the riot might not stop. Extras remembering the experience when interviewed by Herring and Robinson and by journalists describe it as ‘Almost too real’ and declare, ‘Some of this has happened’.35
When Hollywood comes to town, the very tropes that act as catalysts for bad memories are packaged as collective fantasies. A Time To Kill is both a movie and a collective memory for the residents of Canton. Where The Long Walk Home has been adopted in schools, largely because it extols a strong (white) female role model, and Mississippi Burning remains most renowned for the furore of its reception, A Time to Kill, despite Grisham’s conservative but fair-minded legal eagle saving the day, successfully plays out movie-made southern stereotypes while pandering to the kind of heritage tourism that supports the ‘New South’ of racial reconciliation.
Towards a movie-made movement
Barbara Melosh complained in 1988 that a ‘sanitized version’ of the Civil Rights Movement had entered ‘the canon of consensus history’ and Fred Hobson, with his usual unruffled good sense, allows that ‘the Bad Old Days’ before ‘the South Triumphant’ are far more intriguing than the ‘New South’.36 Whichever way film directors turned their cameras in the 1980s and 1990s, they failed to reshape our visions of the Movement, instead reflecting ‘our’ timidity and sentimentality in white redemption stories set in the ‘bad old days’, or our primal thrill at seeing morally-charged action heroes succeed against evil racists by deploying the requisite quotient of violence. Herring and Robinson’s low-budget creative intervention in the wake of A Time To Kill shows that bitter memories of the 1960s continue to simmer just below the racially-charged politics of the 1990s. A Time To Kill illustrates that while films that recreate civil rights struggles are rarely box-office smashes, those that revisit their interpretive grid to imagine a dialectical relationship between race and rights with affective echoes of civil rights scenes successfully harness the imagistic power of film memory.
Few feature films capture what Todd Gitlin has called the movement’s ‘divine delirium’. Rarely do directors stretch to present a character like Vernon Johns whose bleak, stirring sermons at Dexter Avenue Baptist church (‘it’s safe to murder Negroes’) animate what is an excellent – though one fears little known – TV movie, The Road to Freedom: The Vernon Johns Story (1994). Only as recently as 2001 has the brilliant civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, black, communist, and queer, been allotted screen space, in Boycott. Someone is yet to make the movie that juxtaposes the legacy of the first black graduate of Central High, Ernest Green, with that of Governor Orval Faubus who tried to block his progress: by the mid-1970s Green was Assistant Labor Secretary to President Carter and Faubus was a bank teller. Safe, sensible and sensitive evocations carry the day but too often fail to convey the excitement, fear and urgency one feels reading novels like Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) or Charles Johnson’s Dreamer (1998). Few films capture what Cornel West has described as the ‘boiling sense of rage and a passionate pessimism regarding America’s will to justice’ that characterised the civil rights years for many black people in the South.37 Yet A Time To Kill does tap in to that sense of disquiet, its racial enclaves congealed into custom until shaken by the angry black father breaking open a legacy of race hatred that whites found morally reprehensible but many tacitly sanctioned for so long. Carl Lee as reconceived in Akiva Goldsman’s screenplay, is a reminder of Clyde Franklin’s assertion in 1994 that ‘in America adult black males have only been “men” for about twenty years’ and that they are still seldom recognised as ‘societally approved men’. Goldsman and Schmacher make Carl Lee an African American populist hero.38
When considering the movie-made Movement, one begins to detect a new battle over audience that divides along racial lines, with directors fighting over custody of the past in order to protect the 1960s and its icons. Spike Lee campaigned against a white director, Norman Jewison, directing a film based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X (despite the older director’s success with films like In The Heat Of The Night and A Soldier’s Story). In a similar way, if, as Maurice Halbwachs maintains, we need historical witnesses to confirm our recognition of the past in collective memory, the casting of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.’s children in Ghosts of Mississippi and Boycott garners a sense of authenticity for black audiences and exhibits a kind of moral deference to African American shared memories.
Richard Rorty claims that post-war it has become difficult to tell a ‘convincing story of social hope’ and Manning Marable and Leith Mullings have stated that it is ‘exceedingly difficult to advocate radical ideas for democratic social transformation when there are few, if any, actual models which express one’s hopes and aspirations’.39 The Civil Rights Movement remains perhaps the only model to which contemporary writers and filmmakers can turn with some certainty. But palliative rites of passage stories – works of contrition frozen in the past – have been a soft and spongy fulcrum for movies of this sub-genre for too long. When they mutate into a political battleground like Mississippi Burning, they reflect an equally vitiated sense of Hollywood’s scope for representing the Movement and remind us that film reflects but also limps behind reality. There is room for more of the kind of creative-critical archaeology that Waking in Mississippi begins to undertake with regard to A Time To Kill. Even white psychodramas can have important and unexpected effects. In Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2000), a documentary about South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the white subjects interviewed said he decided to seek amnesty for his part in the murder of black South Africans after watching Mississippi Burning. Eric Taylor had the opposite response to Lawrence Rainey when he realised he had indeed become like those Sheriffs he saw on screen whose primary task was to break rather than uphold the law. Similarly, A Time To Kill has been cited by an American Senator when speaking out against racist bigotry; he forgoes any problematic discussion of vigilante justice to dwell on ‘A Time to Heal’, the words that follow ‘A Time to Kill’ in the Book of Ecclesiastes. And local newspapers like the Jackson Clarion Ledger and Madison County Journal continue to credit A Time To Kill with ‘bringing [Canton’s] residents closer together . . . across racial boundaries [more] than any other experience in the city’s history’.40 Filmmakers and audiences are only just beginning to excavate the layers of film and history – our reel and real memories of the courageous successes and gridlocked failures of the Movement.
I am grateful to Richard H. King for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay and to Christie Herring for her thoughtful reconsideration of the events that surrounded the making of Waking in Mississippi.