People around the world celebrate Martin Luther King Day in honor of a man who became a voice for persecuted African Americans. Less than 100 years after the Civil War, on August 28, 1963, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the Lincoln Memorial steps in Washington, D.C. and delivered one of the most stirring speeches of all time. We all recognize the words:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This dream was significantly realized two years later, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but not fully, as King’s assassination in 1968 painfully emphasized.
The debate continues over how fully Dr. King’s dream has been realized. This debate spurred first-time filmmaker Craig Bodeker to make “A Conversation About Race,” a documentary that strikes at the core of American racism.
I highly recommend this film. It will open the eyes of anyone with questions. I say this because it opened mine.
Just over 40 years after Dr. King’s assassination, the first black president resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Minorities have been elected to every branch of government and work in every sector of American life.
So what prompts a man like President Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to declare that “racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run“? Further, how can he allege that Americans “believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God“?
Obama, trying to distance himself from such comments, condemned Wright’s words in a Philadelphia speech. He said that “… race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America–to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”
Bodeker acknowledges Wright’s and Obama’s comments and embraces the call to face this issue. His documentary is a compilation of interviews with a wide variety of Denver, Colorado residents in different age groups, from different backgrounds, of different sexes and races. Bodeker asks a series of questions in a straightforward manner, occasionally asking a leading question. But such questions are presented openly, and the film as a whole allows the viewer to make up their own mind, since the interview subjects are individuals that believe racism is alive and well in America.
One of the most important things that Bodeker points out is the transformation of what racism was to what people believe it is today. In the past, racism was tangible. Whites ate in restaurants, blacks bought carry-out from the kitchen; whites had one bathroom, blacks had another. True American racism has been dramatically documented in the one-of-a-kind book “Black Like Me” by under-cover journalist John Howard Griffin, who disguised himself as a black man in order to live life in the shoes of another race.
This documentary also opens eyes. It gives viewers insight into the minds of those who believe in racism, to see the foundation of their arguments.
Bodeker takes a no-nonsense approach to his filmmaking style. He bluntly lays out what he is going to do: interview believers in racism and look for inconsistencies–he calls them “disconnects.”
From the start, Bodeker states his purpose: “I … can’t think of another issue that is more artificial, manufactured … than this whole construct called racism.” Bodeker said he is suspicious of those who use the term racism because it no longer means what it once did. It is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” But Bodeker says believers in racism now “feel that racism is all around them, its everywhere all the time yet they have a hard time coming up with any real life examples of it, or even a definition of what it is.”
His subjects unwittingly support this statement. They list about 10 “racist” incidents, including staring, being cautious, thinking that “black people are loud,” noticing race and self-diagnosed bigotry. None are “more racist” than these.
Can such “racist” actions be compared to the racism that blacks experienced in the past? If you think so, then the Oscar-winning film “Crash” takes your thinking to its logical conclusion: If such actions are racist, then we are all racist. In following the intertwined lives of racially diverse Los Angeles residents, “Crash” shows ways that all people think or act differently toward people of other races. But none of the events in the film are remotely akin to what Bodeker’s subjects mentioned. “Crash” focuses on heavy racial tensions that none of his subjects have faced.
Cristóbal Kruzen’s award-winning film “Final Solution” reveals what racism was only a few years ago in apartheid era South Africa (as does “Invictus,” which Carl Kozlowski reviewed for BH not long ago). It is based on the true story of Gerrit Wolfaardt, a white supremacist with a plan to purge South Africa of its black population. But his relationships with a pretty co-ed and a black pastor open his eyes, and his struggle between inner racial and religious inclinations climaxes as he stares down the barrel of a rifle. (It is a well-written and realistic film, with the country’s racial hatred efficiently displayed. While some of the supporting actors are average, the leads for the most part deliver.)
These two films, and countless newsreels from the 1960s, clearly reveal that racism in the United States isn’t what it used to be, if it exists at all. Yet many Americans cling to racism as a go-to issue still plaguing us.
I’ve struggled with this popular form of racism, afraid that noticing someone’s skin color or being overly sensitive to someone else’s culture makes me racist. This film helped me see the light. By that definition, everyone is racist. No one can say they haven’t noticed someone else’s skin color, even supposed civil rights champions–see this week’s controversy over senate majority leader Harry Reid’s comments about President Obama.
The question then is, would Dr. King, if he were alive today, see our country and think that his dream has been realized? Or would he believe we are far from the mark? If so, have we overcompensated, or fallen short? I’m in the overcompensation camp, but hey, I’m a white male.
American slavery and racism are two of the ugliest blotches in our nation’s history. But crying “racism” in petty instances demeans the work of Dr. King and the countless men and women who fought with him for racial equality. Further, obsessively demanding retribution for crimes committed against others by others makes it easy to neglect one’s responsibility for their own actions and achievements. Still not convinced? See this film and join the conversation.