Race, Ferguson, and the Movies

Hollywood used to love making movies about brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the mob. Dipping into a rich tradition of American literature and drama they came up with such motion pictures as “The Ox Bow Incident,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Crucible,” all those “Billy Jack” flicks, and several others that we’ll later kick ourselves for failing to mention. These movies vary widely in quality, but all share an annoying self-congratulatory quality. Hollywood types like to think themselves brave independent thinkers standing up against the mindless passions of the American mob, even as they pander to its basest instincts, so the oh-so-noble protagonists of those movies always seemed to derive in some saccharine way from the filmmaker’s heroic self-image.
That was back when the mobs were still likely to be central casting southern rednecks itching for some ad hoc justice against a black man or an Asian-American or a communist or a hippie freak or a space alien or some other sort of sympathetic “other,” and the consensus of bien pensant opinion was always solidly on the side of the brave independent thinker. These days the mob is invariably of a more politically correct hue, the polite people with the right credentials are therefore obliged to go along with whatever they say, the lone dissenters are such unwashed and un-photogenic right-wing bastards as ourselves, and Hollywood seems to have moved on to zombie movies. We don’t expect to see any big-budget epics about the lynch mob brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, or any of the other recent outburst of mob mentality, and if we do the movies will have to stand the old conventions on their head.
Monday’s funeral for the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot in Ferguson by a white police officer, as he is invariably described in press reports, was a perfectly cinematic bit of mob mania that will never portrayed as such by any Hollywood director. Among the eulogists was the exaggeratedly buffoonish Rev. Al Sharpton, whose¬†long disgraceful history of whipping up fatal programs against Jews in particular and racial animosities against ¬†peopler another color in general would make him a perfect stock character if only he could have been portrayed by Strother Martin, the mourners included the former filmmaker Spike Lee, who became a Hollywood darling by romanticizing race riots in his breakthrough movie “Do the Right Thing” and such blatantly anti-Semitic fare as “Mo’ Better Blues,” and all were crying out for justice. By “justice” they didn’t mean a dispassionate examination of the facts of the shooting, but rather an immediate execution of the harsh verdict that the mob had already reached based on most dubious sort of hearsay and its pre-existing prejudices.
The facts of the matter are frustratingly unclear, but the intense media coverage has already yielded reports that suggest the mob’s verdict is premature. A popular narrative that the decedent was gunned down for no possible reason other than racial animus while peacefully surrounding himself to the unfairly suspicious police has been disproved by the independent autopsy conducted by his own family, an embarrassing video of the oversized decedent manhandling a diminutive convenience store clerk for a box of Swisher Sweets cigars just before his fatal encounter with the police has effectively undermined the heart-warming tale of a college-bound young exemplar heading to his grandmother’s house, and stories about injuries to the police officer’s face add credence to his apparent explanation that the decedent was going for his gun and it was all a case of self-defense. All these facts of the matter have been muddied by the ham-fisted response of the Ferguson Police Department, which managed to offend even the most law-and-order sorts of Republicans with its heavily militarized presence during the inevitable looting, but there’s still ample reason that at this point in the plot of a movie a brave independent thinking hero might start to harbor doubts about the mob. It would make a compelling scene, especially if interposed with a montage of headlines about the race-baiting Attorney General and all the fashionable media promising to placate the mob, but Hollywood is the fashionable media and is thus unable to get the scene quite right. Nor will they ever make a convincing movie about the fraudulent accusations of rape against the Duke University lacrosse team, which had a disgraceful 88 members of that supposedly august faculty proudly sign on the lynch mob that judged them by the holy trinity of race, class, and gender of the team and its accuser rather than the scientifically incontrovertible and entirely exculpating evidence, or the case of that “white Hispanic” down in Florida who shot a young black man for no reason except that the young black man was banging the “crazy ass crackers'” head against the pavement, or any of the other recent failed attempts at demonstrating the overpowering white racism that the independent thinkers of Hollywood still desire to bravely oppose.
By far the contemporary classic account of these ginned-up racial contretemps is the great Tom Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” which somehow grows more classic with every new brouhaha. There are no heroes in that forlorn masterpiece, especially not the unexceptional young black decedent who hilariously becomes an “honor student” in all the frenzied media coverage, a peculiar feature of every racial controversy that has since come up, and the only character willing to defy the mob for principled reasons is a cranky old Jewish man who inadvertently suborns perjury in his court by the tale’s flawed protagonist. Hollywood completely ruined the book, of course, and changed the cranky old Jewish man to a more heroic black woman, but we suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new take on the old brave independent thinking hero standing up to the mindless passions of the mob genre. It’s a shame, because we always liked those movies for all their self-congratulatory flaws and we need them more than ever.

— Bud Norman