Movies, Racial Bias, Privilege and “Whiteness”

A year ago there was outrage about the “whiteness” of Oscar nominees. This year, individual nominees were much more diverse, and nominated films bring race issues out loud and clear. If you are white, they might just awaken you to your privilege. Could they bring us together?

The African-American Film Critics Association says that last year was the “best year ever” for black film. A record seven performers of color were in the running for the top acting categories compared to zero in the previous two years. Best Actor and Best Actress in a Supporting Role both went to African Americans. Four of the nominated movies, for me, painfully increased awareness of racial issues, bias and privilege.

Hidden Figures” reveals the heroism of three mathematically and technologically gifted African-American women. In the segregated facilities of NASA, they confront racism and sexism while doing critical work for the U.S. space race. The true story breaks through stereotypes of race and gender. It is an uplifting film, presenting incredible role models for all girls, especially girls of color! The painful part is that these women and what they endured and contributed were “hidden” from most of us until now.

Fences” takes us into the lives of hard-working urban blacks in the 1950’s. Based on the August Wilson play, it is about frustration and bitterness over lost opportunities. The main character is too old to have benefitted from the integration of professional baseball. He limits the potential of his son, who (at least theoretically) could have had greater opportunities. (The gender roles, by the way, are hopefully a thing of the past.)

Moonlight” (Best Picture) is the story of a young man’s journey. The young man is an African American challenged by growing up fatherless and with a drug-addicted mother. He finds a role model – a nice guy who deals drugs. We watch possibility wane largely because of his upbringing and environment.

Not Your Negro” stunned me. I really saw for the first time – and from the perspective of an African American – unthinkable things that happened in my lifetime. The film is an imagined completion of the powerful but unfinished book of James Baldwin. It is Baldwin’s personal account of the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. It paints the agonizing history of racism in the last century. It makes us question how much and how little things have really changed.

So, if you are a middle- or upper-middle-class white person, if you haven’t already, see these movies! They will open your eyes to how life has been, is, or could be if we were not white, not middle class, not privileged. While tough to watch, these movies just might wake us up and bring us together for a better future!

Have any of these films opened your eyes to racial bias or racial privilege? How will they affect you going forward?

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