restricted access 1965: Movies and the Color Line
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1965 Movies and the Color Line DAVID DESSER While the war in Vietnam was escalating to the point that there were almost 185,000 troops in country by year’s end, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of that in mainstream films. By the same token, another war—President Lyndon Johnson’s much ballyhooed War on Poverty—also seems to have left little trace on celluloid images of the year. One learned from protest singer-songwriter Phil Ochs that 23,000 U.S. troops landed on the shores of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, but the movies were silent on this score, too. Bubbling beneath the surface, however, even within the mainstream, one could easily detect the restlessness and disillusionment that would threaten to break apart the fabric of American society later in the decade and that certainly ended the ride of Hollywood’s family-style, Production Code–restricted cinema. Perhaps Hollywood remained moribund as it felt itself torn between producing middle-of-the-road fare that yielded the occasional big hit and continued, for the most part, to garner coveted Oscar statuettes, or delivering more offbeat fare to a growing audience of art film aficionados and disaffected teens whose numbers, thanks to the Baby Boom, were ever increasing. Traditional cinema with aging stars like James Stewart and Bob Hope barely returned a profit, while Golden Age directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway similarly found themselves increasingly out of step with younger audiences, try as they might to connect. In short, mainstream films left the mainstream audience largely apathetic and younger audiences unimpressed; to some, it seemed that the magic had slipped away from the silver screen. Those hoping for a return to form for the movies might have seen a savior not in George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, a biblical epic whose paltry return of $7 million on a bloated $20 million budget was all too indicative of the industry’s sad state of affairs, but in a film that would prove to be not simply a blockbuster smash but one of the most successful movies ever made—a film that would in real dollars amount to one of the biggest 130 hits in Hollywood’s history. While Hollywood in the next few years would try, with often disastrous results, to duplicate this feat of adapting popular musicals to the screen, The Sound of Music remains the most successful such venture. Hollywood feted the film and reveled in its box office winnings, but more astute cultural critics could hear far more complex sounds and stirrings in the social nexus of the year’s truly momentous events. One such issue that America would face is one that The Sound of Music, with its feel-good story and sentiments, avoids: race. The genocidal racism that helped the Nazis rise to power is repressed in the Oscar-winning film, but many in the United States thought the time was ripe to confront racism in its many and varied forms. Thus, when President Johnson forcefully and eloquently admitted to America’s racial divide in a speech to Congress on 15 March (boycotted by the entire Mississippi and Virginia delegations, as well as other members from southern states), it appeared as if something significant was stirring, something whose time had arisen and, indeed, was threatening to boil over. Acclaiming the heroism of those who marched in Selma, Alabama, one week earlier and who had been met with brutality, violence, and death, Johnson launched into a speech that unhesitatingly castigated the nation for its failure to live up to its own promise: “We have already waited a hundred years and more and the time for waiting is gone.” It was time already, he went on, for American Negroes to “secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And—we—shall—overcome” (Branch 113–14). Quoting the title of the iconic civil rights song was obviously no accident, and it must have seemed to the civil rights warriors of the time, especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the march on Selma just the previous week, that Johnson would do what no one since Lincoln had done or could do. Just five months later, amid the smoke from a south central Los...


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- Plots, themes, etc.
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