This weekend, as you search for a movie to watch, you can either head to a theater and see Lee Daniels’ The Butler, or stay home and pick one of approximately 14 billion options available on streaming over a variety of services, be it Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, or other sites. Every weekend, Vulture tries to make life easier by narrowing it down to a handful of heartily recommended options. This week we explore more of the Civil Rights movement on screen, from an iconic film to a thorough documentary investigation to a sprawling tele-movie from the seventies.
The Butler’s most striking recreation, the molotov cocktail-attack of an activist bus by an enraged white mob, was always meant to be photographed, in hopes of rattling the bones of every person in America. The “Freedom Riders” were peaceful protestors who bused down from Washington D.C. into the Jim Crow South looking for resistance. They found it — and it was more violent than they could have expected.
There isn’t enough time for The Butler to give us any context for the work of the Freedom Riders, but that’s why we have American Experience documentaries. The two-hour recounting of the vehicular act of civil disobedience interviews some of the actual Riders (an interracial crew that will warm the heart) along with a few people on the other side of the line. The way it’s described by both riders and the children of the perpetrators, places like Montgomery, Alabama were lawless free-for-alls of mayhem. Fiction simply can’t top these primary sources. (Available on PBS.org)
The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
If you went to middle school in the late seventies, eighties, or nineties, you probably watched the heartbreaking TV movie adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines’ novel of the same name (middle schoolers of the new millennium, please let us know if it’s still a history class staple). Through the magic of makeup, a 41-year-old Cicely Tyson plays the titular character from age 23 to 110. The movie strikes a few gimmicky notes, but a sharp Tyson keeps it together as the film treks from the Civil War all the way to the Civil Rights movement — a span few narratives have the girth to examine. Miss Jane Pittman’s real joy, and why it became essential school viewing, is that it adds the one thing history books cannot — personality. She may not have been a real historical figure, but in the film, she’s very much alive. (Available on Hulu)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Director Stanley Kramer taboo-shattering dramedy is considered a milestone in Hollywood’s progression towards racial equality, but just what was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner facing when it arrived in December 1967? Six months prior to release, sixteen states had still banned interracial marriage (which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in that year’s Loving vs. Virginia). It’s not hard to see why Spencer Tracy’s father figure, a civil rights advocate, would nonetheless worry about a black man marrying his daughter. Even Sidney Poitier’s dad is frightened by the prospect! A complaint to which Poitier retaliates with one of the most badass speeches of all time. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Prom Night in Mississippi
America’s fight to end racial prejudice is far from over (just in case this week’s shocking “A Day in the Life of the Klu Klux Klan” pictorial didn’t remind you), though there are enough people aware of the problem that the fight isn’t slowing down either. Take Morgan Freeman, who learned in 2008 that his local Charleston, Mississippi high school was still holding segregated proms for its white and black students. After picking his jaw off the floor, Freeman decided to throw an offer the school’s way: He would pay for the entire prom out of his pocket if they would integrate the students. Documenting the process on camera, Freeman uncovers a student body who thinks a school-wide prom is a great idea, an administration wary of potential dangers, and a few parents stuck in the past. And we thought the high school in Footloose had it rough. (Available on SnagFilm)