“If You Do Not like the Past, Change It”: The Reel Civil Rights Revolution, Historical Memory, and the Making of Utopian Pasts
Historians have continued to expand the available literature on the Civil Rights Revolution, an unprecedented social movement during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s that aimed to codify basic human and civil rights for individuals racialized as Black, by further developing its cast of characters, challenging its geographical and temporal boundaries, and by comparing it to other social movements both inside and outside of the United States. Thus far, they have barely scratched the surface when it comes to either historical memory or filmic texts. This dissertation, then, provides an in-depth examination of both how Hollywood films from the 1990s to the present represent the Civil Rights Revolution and how individuals evaluate these films. Given that movies mirror a society’s hopes and fears and tell more about the time in which they were made than the time portrayed, they prove to be important cultural and social barometers of society at large. Selected films, along with almost 3,500 reviews from Amazon, are the focus of this examination. This dissertation argues that Hollywood manifests and perpetuates the on-going struggle of coming to terms with the past. Films ignore evidence and consistently minimize and delete the activism of Black people, while maximizing the generosity, forethought, and understanding of White people. Additionally, everyday people accept filmic representations of the past as epitomizing undisputed, utopian truths. Studying historical memory reminds academics that there is always a gap, sometimes quite large, between the past, how the past is documented, how trained historians study the past, and how society understands the past.