August 29, 2013

STALEY | MLK, JFK and Race in America

Print More

Perhaps one of the reasons we reenact the sixties so often is that the screen-ready timeline of the decade perfectly appropriates the classic three-act narrative structure. Screenwriting gurus teach that a film should open with a clear outline of the themes that the film will explore. Opportunely, we begin the decade with an election that establishes a dichotomy: youthful idealism, via Kennedy, takes on old-guard rationalism, symbolized by Nixon. The hope to end antagonism between a bureaucracy-averse population and its government is lit and, with the March on Washington, a dream is set to aspire to. Then, Kennedy, the catalyst for this reconciliation is struck by a bullet, marking the first plot point at roughly a third of the way through the period (November 1963). This complicates the struggle to legislate liberal gestures and the action is propelled forward. Like Hamlet, the idealism is left fatherless with a struggle against an indecent social structure. A war picks up and complicates matters while the ghost of the father, Robert Kennedy, reminds us of the struggle to overcome. Then, two thirds of the way through the decade, the crisis (the plot point that incites the climax) takes place: MLK Jr. and RFK are carried away as fallen soldiers. The climax, where the character faces a critical ultimatum, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, reminds us of the struggle established in the beginning (1960 election). Here, leftists debated whether to take arms in outraged political suicide or suffer the pains of inaction, Democratic officials drop a platform to end the war, race riots raze urban ghettos and Hubert Humphrey, a mild, impotent candidate, is chosen. We end in defeat but Woodstock plays out the credits.Most recently, Lee Daniels’ The Butler embraced this synopsis of the sixties with a particular emphasis on the father-like stature of JFK. The film’s protagonist, Ernest Gaines, says about Kennedy’s death that the last time he saw that much blood was after his own father’s death. While preparing to be awarded for his service at the White House, Gaines places a watch his father gave him next to one of JFK’s ties, a gift from Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. Although The Butler’s narrative extends the sixties from the first piece of spoken news, the 1955 Emmett Till Case (the beginning of a dramatic triangle between father, son and change) to Reagan’s 1985 decision not to divest from Apartheid South Africa (where father and son and change come together), the film has all the elements of a classic sixties biopic. And true to a movie that seeks to emphasize the role of patient, “house negro” mentality over Black Panther “field negro” ideology, The Butler takes a moderate stance and alludes to JFK as the father of modern liberalism.Let’s see Kennedy as he truly was: a product of privilege handed the presidency by corruption and sex appeal, and, if anything regarding civil rights, a white liberal obstacle to the vision put forth by the true father of modern leftism: MLK Jr. Although not mentioned in The Butler or any other cinematic representation, Kennedy dismissed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a moderate, anti-segregation group, and the Freedom Riders (with Cornell the most represented college) as “radical”. As a senator, Kennedy turned down a proposal to send the 1957 Civil Rights Act directly to the senate floor (although voting for it in public eye). The 1964 Civil Rights Act was enacted in Kennedy’s name, arguably more to persuade and guilt voters than to honor his aspirations. Further, he approved his brother’s wiretapping of MLK Jr., amassing recordings of MLK Jr.’s most private moments, even ones of King having sex.Although the two met in a few formal conferences and Kennedy helped King out of a Georgia prison, MLK Jr. spoke of JFK in largely unfavorable terms and called him a “disappointment”. King referred to Kennedy’s race record as “cautious and defensive” and only for “the limited goal of token integration” (with no gestures towards King’s staples: housing and income equality). Kennedy’s speech on the integration of University of Mississippi was admirable but not enough for King or “Civil Rights Hero” stature. Kennedy was ambivalent and practical whereas King was motivated and idealistic.King’s traits should give him the stature Kennedy holds. This year dates the 50-year commemoration of two pivotal moments for both figures: This month, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and, in November, Kennedy’s assassination. I suspect that the Kennedy Assassination will receive a lot more cable news documentaries, History Channel investigations and, in the future, filmic representations. Ultimately, it’s not up to historians and writers to cement these men’s reputations; their iconography will be decided by the directors of the television programs and movies that the next generations watch. Since his assassination robbed him of the chance to play the protagonist of a great leftist or minority success story, let’s give the “catalyst” characterization to the man whose ideas, not his death, set progress’ ongoing narrative in motion.

Original Author: Henry Staley