8 ways a modern civil rights movement shifted culture
On HBO there was “Lovecraft Country,” a fantasy series that premiered in August and travels across 1950s America with the Korean War, outer space, and an assortment of moments from the distant past. . Recently, “Them” hit Amazon and happily transforms the racial integration of the 1950s into a horror series set in a white suburb. At least two films have been made about government agencies harassing – and, in the case of Fred Hampton, shooting to death while asleep – prominent black Americans. Before, there were movies like “The Hate U Give”, about a teenage girl lured in to protest after the police shot her friend; and “Queen & Slim,” in which two cop killers go on the loose and somehow fall in love. This is for beginners.
Some of these works can be as lyrical as Lee’s. Yet despite its reliance on metaphor and genre, it feels grounded in some sort of moral literalism – or perhaps just the obvious. The pervasiveness of racism oppresses the characters, the plots and maybe even us. This is of course how racism works. But here, he leaves no room for ideas or personalities to declare themselves. The feeling of unhappiness is totalizing and cushioning. Characters cannot connect or think meaningfully without the intrusion of ghosts, monsters, or the FBI
That’s not to say that there’s no way to imagine the American marriage crisis and magical realism. A few years ago, “Watchmen” merged the fight against white supremacy with the myths of superheroes. The confusion never felt free because its creators seemed to deeply understand what they were doing and took their time to fully reveal it to us. Too often, the crisis invites opportunism.
In the 1970s, as black nationalism became the dominant black political mode, something incredible happened to American films. They have Blacker. Before 1968, there had essentially been Sidney Poitier who had changed the country on his own; then a galaxy of other faces materialized next to his. But soon enough, it became clear – thanks to both gems and slag – that crime, heroic or otherwise, would preoccupy most of these films, many of which were directed by black men. “Blaxploitation”, they called him, in part for his myopia.
A similar monomania is returning for this latest boom in black screen expression. The crime now is the discrimination deployed in order to make the past at home in the present and the present indistinguishable from the past. The continuous ones are folded in loops. The characters largely feel like victims. And the work can also seem like exploiting the public’s thirst to look at itself as’ 70s stuff – but without the humor, broken electricity, or invigorating laziness. (Boy, you’re missing these now.) Here, too, there are compliments and shortcuts; here relies on genre presets that make the atrocity redundant.
Some of this work attempts to capture the surrealism of racism that Jordan Peele coined for “Get Out”. But while this film presented popular culture with a critique of white people’s lust for black personality, it was also about fear of loss of self, of plunging into a “sunken place” that results in racial lobotomy. The fears are external. Most importantly, they are existential.