Hollywood Is Confused About What Really Counts As Progress

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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.

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