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What three films and their Black characters reveal about America's ideas on race

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 film Selma, pictured here in a still from the film.
Selma film
David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 2014 film Selma, pictured here in a still from the film.

The writer Wil Haygood grew up watching movies with mostly white actors — Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Henry Fonda.

"They all had one thing in common — they were all white. As a little kid, I never saw a Black actor," Haygood said.

Black actors were on screen, but mostly in the background.

So, in his new book, Colorization: One Hundred Years Of Black Films In A White World, Haygood puts them in the foreground, exploring the history of Black artists in Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier stars in the 1963 film Lilies In The Field, pictured here in a still from the film.
/ Lillies Of The Field film
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Sidney Poitier stars in the 1963 film Lilies In The Field, pictured here in a still from the film.

He holds up films and the context in which they were released to better show the life of African Americans.

And he explores what the movies say and what they don't say, from Woodrow Wilson showing Birth Of A Nation in the White House, to the use of cameras in nationalizing issues of Black life.

Here, Haygood highlights three notable films and tells us what they reveal about the United States' ideas on race through their Black characters.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Imitation Of Life (1959)

It's very important to know that when it came out in 1959, there were no Blacks on weekly TV, other than playing the role of maids or chauffeurs.

And so here was a movie that was directed by Douglas Sirk that was ostensibly about a white family. And there was a famous mother who was an actress, and she had a daughter.

But Sirk had another plot about a Black family, who was a mother who was the maid living with this famous actress played by Juanita Moore. And she had a daughter who looked very light of skin. And the daughter wanted to pass as white.

America had never shown on the big screen the psyche and the turmoil that could take place inside of a Black family. And it really went to the roots of raw racism and self-hatred in this country.

It was a searing moment, especially so that Hollywood was very afraid to make movies that involved race and especially to make movies that involved white racism and seeing that up close like that.

Lilies Of The Field (1963)

This is based on a novel about a handyman [played by Sidney Poitier] looking for work. He comes across a group of nuns from Europe who are here in the U.S..

It was very difficult for Ralph Nelson, who was the director, to raise the money for this film. He convinced Sidney Poitier to slash his salary, which he wanted to do because he loved the script so much.

To have a Black man who was not speaking in stereotypical patterns was very meaningful and very huge.

And of course, the following year, 1964, Sidney Poitier became the first Black to win an Oscar for a non-stereotypical role. So this was a big step forward in 1963, when this film came out.

Selma (2014)

This film was about the famous March 7, 1965 march led by civil rights workers in Selma, Ala. across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

For years, the script had been floating around. Filmmakers couldn't get the movie made. And then a wonderful filmmaker by the name of Ava DuVernay decided to make it. And she cast David Oyelowo in the role of Martin Luther King Jr., and he gave a towering performance.

Selma was such a huge hit that it really started to wake so many people up.
Many people had questions — how come we are only just now, in 2014, seeing a big epic film about Martin Luther King Jr.? Why have we had to wait so long?

Many people were upset that David or Ava were not nominated for Oscars. And we later had a movement that became known as #OscarsSoWhite. And that was spawned in 2015, when there were no Black actors or actresses nominated. And that happened again in 2016. Which is why we need to know the history.

How do these things keep happening? Why do they keep happening to Black filmmakers? Because if you look back 100 years into film, then you see the pain and you see the effort and you see the struggle.

I think that the future for Black film is very bright. Filmmakers like Lee Daniels, like Spike Lee, like Ava DuVernay — I think they are inspired by the struggle that went on before them.

And so the pace is sluggish. It's still too sluggish. But thank goodness there are folks out there who want to change things, who want to make things better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.