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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 05:32 am

Rosa's legacy

Hollywood tells the story of the struggle for racial justice

The recent passing of Rosa Parks is a reminder of how one person can effect social change. She became an icon in the civil-rights movement by refusing to yield her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955, standing up for what she believed and proving that there are numerous ways to fight injustice. Hollywood has come a long way from its early racism, which was blatant in The Birth of a Nation (1915) and subtle in Gone with the Wind (1939). Even a landmark film about race, The Defiant Ones (1958), sacrificed true insight into prejudice for phony melodramatics. Its pretense of seriousness rings hollow today. Director Stanley Kramer couldn’t leave well enough alone, and nine years later he unleashed the dreadful gimmick film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner on an unsuspecting public. Parks is a significant figure in modern American history, but the only movies about her were made for television. The Rosa Parks Story (2002), starring Angela Bassett, is the most notable. The movie’s greatest accomplishment is taking Parks out of the realm of icon and breathing life into her character. We see the bigotry through her eyes, charting her life from childhood to 1955 and the bus boycott. Our very real segregated past should make any thinking person cringe. My main quibble lies with the film’s somewhat abrupt conclusion. There really needed to be more dramatization of her influence and her life after. Do the Right Thing (1989) is an uncharacteristically platitudinous title for such a complex and intense film. Spike Lee ignited enormous controversy with his brilliant examination of the progression of events culminating in a race riot. Lee doesn’t condone the riot or the actions that lead up to it; he merely charts their root causes. No one does the right thing, and Lee ridicules the pettiness of characters on both sides. He effortlessly weaves together comedy and drama, creating a true laugh riot. Racial issues have been a staple of Lee’s career, and I also recommend Jungle Fever (1991), Get on the Bus (1996), and Bamboozled (2000). Crash, a recent DVD release, creates a kaleidoscopic tapestry of the racial and cultural prejudices of a diverse group of Los Angeles residents. The attitudes range from subtle (Don Cheadle) to despicable (Matt Dillon), and no one is completely innocent. Crash is a powerful film that will challenge your beliefs and engage you on an emotional level. Director Paul Haggis has given us a rare masterpiece that entertains and enlightens. Social filmmaking seems to be a lost art, but this particular subject is handled much better today.

New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Nov. 15): Madagascar, The Skeleton Key, and Stealth.
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