I am drawn to films about the subject of racism. I grew up in the deep South during the pre-civil rights era and thus still remember the blatant divisions along the lines of color and race. I also went through the first years of integration at the University of Alabama in the 1960s and remember, as if it was still yesterday, how blacks were treated on campus in those days. And, most important, there was one person in my childhood, Hassie Tubbs, who had almost as much influence on my life as my two parents. Hassie was our maid but she was also our care-giver who watched me and loved me like a mother. She was a devoted, selfless person and a faithful Christian. Her family also became a vital personal part of my family. So, I am drawn to seek deeper understanding of that era and film often provides a way for me to enter into that world with my senses and heart.
Last evening I watched the 1999 HBO film (DVD) A Lesson Before Dying, starring Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and the famous Cicely Tyson. This is one of the finest films on race in the late 1940s that I have seen. It is situated in a poor black community in Louisiana where a young black man is convicted for a murder he did not commit. In defending him his white attorney referred to him as a "hog" and pleaded for his life. The boy’s mother wanted her son to die with dignity, with his head held up as a real "man." Grant Wiggins (Don Cheadle) is a one-room school teacher, the only man in town with a formal education. She pleads with Grant to help her son become a man before he dies. The story works around this theme to the conclusion. Grant is at first unwilling. He has also turned away from faith in God to offer the boy any hope whatsoever. He and the local black minister clash strongly over the question of faith. I will not give away the ending but this is truly a poignant and powerful treatment of race and class in the old South. It is also a very fine film in and of itself. I recommend you find it (I got it in my public library) and watch it.