Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine in Island In The Sun, 1957.
Fox / Kobal / REX / Shutterstock
On August 17, 1957, the New York Times ran a photo of dozens of Ku Klux Klan members picketing a movie theatre in Jacksonville, Florida. Dressed in hoods and robes, with the neon lights illuminating their white costumes in the night, they marched by the popular downtown theater — unmasked. The occasion was the premiere of Island in the Sun, a film by Robert Rossen that had attracted significant media attention even before its release, because of a single, one-second kiss between actors Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin — more of a nuzzle, really. Or, as the New York Times wrote, because the cast “includes two Negroes, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge, and part of the plot concerns them in romantic involvements with white persons.”
When the film reached North Carolina several weeks later, it put to rest any illusion of this being an isolated incident. A group of Klansmen paraded in front of the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte in broad daylight, carrying signs that read: “We protest the showing of this integrated film ‘Island in the Sun’ in N.C.” In North Carolina, too, the Klansmen went unmasked.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of Island’s release on June 12, 1957 — as well as the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that would declare all race-based bans on marriage unconstitutional, 10 years after Island’s premiere. Though the response to Island at the time made much of its interracial “romantic involvements,” these scenes in truth were brief, and packaged in a way that minimized imagined threats to white supremacy. But in 1957, in a cultural context that held segregation as a rule rather than an exception, even the most timid endorsements of romance between black and white characters were boundary-breaking. Making the movie was a real display of courage.
In contrast, a recent series of “tiny moments” in big movies, which have generated a lot of hype for only a little representation, show that it's much harder for a feature film to really earn the designation of being landmark or boundary-breaking in 2017. Beauty and the Beast and The Power Rangers, two of the year's big-budget, mainstream films, have been lauded as groundbreaking for their inclusion of a male-male dance scene and a queer Ranger, respectively. But both are in fact just taking small steps to decenter the white male bias that rules most blockbusters (and society). Furtive glances, clever allusions, and sometimes a little bit more went a lot further in 1957, as a way of grappling with taboos and pushing against entrenched, aggressive attitudes — even if contained to a few seconds. But in 2017, a two-second scene of LGBT representation in Beauty and the Beast does not quite achieve the same effect.
Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin in Island in the Sun.
20th Century Fox
Prejudice in the United States has become much less visible since Island in the Sun was released — if not necessarily less present. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are alive and well, but there are no longer laws to prohibit interracial marriage, and the KKK does not physically bar patrons from accessing movie theaters. Filmmakers are generally not threatened with censorship, violence, or legal repercussions.
Some high-profile movies certainly do reflect and engage with that decades-long shift in cultural norms: This year, for example, Jordan Peele’s Get Out brilliantly continued (an commented on) the long struggle to cinematically depict black-white interracial dating, while in Loving we got a feature-length depiction of the eponymous Supreme Court case. Smaller productions have taken advantage of the right to free expression to explore a much larger spectrum of stories than was possible 60 years ago — from features like Moonlight and Wexford Plaza to documentaries like I Am Not Your Negro. And this month, Wonder Woman debuted as the first enormous (and enormously successful) superhero blockbuster both starring and directed by a woman.
Little gestures and second-long kisses are no longer enough to truly challenge the assumptions or prejudices of most of the moviegoing public.
But even in the absence of explicit social or legal strictures on representing perspectives and experiences outside the straight white norm onscreen, most big Hollywood movies still safely confine themselves to it. Representation remains structurally flawed, and the stories of anyone but straight white men are often either missing or invoked through stereotypes. Many big films that are notable for one kind of representation — starring (white) women — often rely on the othering of racialized characters for comedic effect.
This hasn’t stopped Hollywood from celebrating itself, and being celebrated, for tiny moments of representation, or from spinning many movies as more daring than they actually are. The industry’s self-indulgence was on full display recently in its infatuation with La La Land, a musical romance starring two hugely popular white actors that somehow managed to generate a PR narrative as a risk-taking, game-changing underdog of a movie in the same Oscars season as Barry Jenkins’ eventual Best Picture winner Moonlight, which featured a largely unknown cast in the beautiful coming-of-age story of a gay black man. And this exaggerated pat-on-the-back attitude toward mainstream Hollywood productions, as BuzzFeed News' Alison Willmore recently suggested, does more harm than good.
Many people still feel invisible in popular culture, and the pain of that extends far beyond the screen. Little gestures and second-long kisses are no longer enough to truly challenge the assumptions or prejudices of most of the moviegoing public. And so the project now — for both audiences and artists — is to find a way to genuinely embrace incremental change without losing sight of the fact that real representation deserves and demands so much more.
George Clooney accepts his Supporting Actor Oscar for Syriana (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
Michael Caulfield Archive / WireImage / Focus Films / Everett Collection
We certainly cannot rely on the most powerful people in Hollywood to tell us when celebrations are in order. When George Clooney won an Oscar in 2006 for his supporting role in Syriana, for example, he used his time onstage to congratulate the Academy on its progressivism:
“I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects, we are the ones — this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.”
The irony of what might be called his Hollywood savior complex was multilayered. He had just beaten Jake Gyllenhaal for Gyllenhaal’s role in Brokeback Mountain as “half of one of the screen’s most precedent-setting couples,” in presenter Nicole Kidman’s words. Clooney, on the other hand, played a CIA operative dispatched to guard US oil interests against Chinese competitors and Middle Eastern terrorists. From the vantage point of 2017 and the past two years' #OscarsSoWhite campaigns, his victory doesn’t register as particularly progressive — and it didn’t at the time, either.
As Spike Lee said of his reference to McDaniel, “To use that as an example of how progressive Hollywood is is ridiculous. Hattie McDaniel played MAMMY in Gone With the Wind. That film was basically saying that the wrong side won the Civil War and that black people should still be enslaved.” Exactly how “out of touch” Hollywood still was became obvious again just two years later, when Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar in the same category for his role, in blackface, in Tropic Thunder.
A pretty small fraction of the many people in Hollywood who fancy themselves progressive are actually creating or greenlighting films that clearly reflect those attitudes in their content or casting.
It’s tempting to read the kind of self-congratulation that surfaced in Clooney’s speech as betraying an industry-wide insecurity that it is not enough to focus exclusively on “merely” entertaining. Beginning in Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the industry governed itself via a production code (1930–1967), executives had — or at least said they had — something bigger in mind. “Motion picture producers know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking,” the code’s preamble held.
This noble goal in reality led to numerous restrictions on filmmakers. But many actors and directors today still do want to contribute, change society for the better, or at least create something more lasting than two hours of fun. And this translates into the much-publicized idea of Hollywood as generally politically progressive, much to the ire of people like Sarah Palin, Tim Allen, and Donald Trump. Allen went as far as saying that Hollywood “is like ’30s Germany,” while Trump notoriously went after Meryl Streep when she criticized his xenophobic and ableist rhetoric at this year’s Golden Globes.
In fact, a pretty small fraction of the many people in Hollywood who fancy themselves progressive are actually creating or greenlighting films that clearly reflect those attitudes in their content or casting. Only 7% of mainstream films managed to meet what the Annenberg Foundation calls racial/ethnic balance, an approximation of national population demographics in its casting practices. The number of Hollywood films featuring diverse casts is not increasing, per the popular narrative, but decreasing.
But for every representative of the studio system who acknowledges that there’s a lot of work to be done, there’s a proud defender of Hollywood’s supposed enlightenment. Lionsgate Co-President Erik Feig applauded his company for making many “left-of center decisions,” citing La La Land, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and “a Tyler Perry comedy” as examples of “unconventional bets” the studio took. Those movies may be left of center, but they’re still not very far from it.
Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings (top) and Scarlett Johansson as The Major in Ghost in the Shell.
20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection / Jasin Boland