Last night Stephanie and I watched a movie called 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the four children who were killed back in 1963 by a bomb, which a white supremacist had planted in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. This event was something I certainly knew of, but only “the headline.” The story itself was just incredibly sad. There were many interviews with the parents and siblings of the children and even after 40-plus years, some of those scars haven’t healed.
Though racism is still alive in the U.S., I mentioned during the film last night that it’s really quite hard to even imagine a time when one race was so completely divided from another to the point where they had different drinking fountains and bathrooms and couldn’t get served at some restaurants. In my head, I just couldn’t picture actually bearing witness to such atrocities and how profoundly that can affect someone, no matter how young or old, weak or strong. That this was happening as recently as 35-40 years ago in our own country is actually embarassing. Hopefully, the fact that I and many others of my generation can’t imagine this happening is a large indicator of how far we’ve come.
I actually realized this during college nearly ten years ago while taking a course called “Classic Films,” taught by an older gentleman named Robert West, who was very widely respected, quite hip for an older guy – and a great teacher. It was my last semester and I had credits to burn, so I thought this would be a good (and yes, easy) class to take. I was right, but I also learned way more than I ever thought I would.
Anyway, one of the films we watched was “Casablanca,” which I had never actually seen at the time. So we watched the movie and afterwards Dr. West, whom I will never forget, flipped on the lights and the first question he asked was “now, was there anything you found a little odd about this film?” For a moment we all sat there, a bunch of 20-somethings, curiously and silently looking around the room to see if anyone had anything to say. Dr. West let the silence linger another 30 seconds or so and repeated his question: “you found nothing odd?” More silence. We all seeemed to have felt like we were being left out of some great inside joke. Or maybe we all felt stupid because there was some blatantly obvious element of the film that none of us had caught.
Dr. West went on. “This film was made in 1942. Nothing strikes you as strange?” Yet more silence, but he didn’t let it linger too long this time. He went on to explain that in 1942, much of our country was very much segregrated and racism was very much alive. He finally gave us our answer by pointing out that this was probably the first widely screened film where the lead character, a white man played by Humphrey Bogart, was very friendly with a colored man, played by Dooley Wilson (Sam). The film crossed the “color” boundry – and only then did the collective light bulb flash on above all our heads. Ah hah! West went on to express some relief that nobody caught it right away – it meant that we thought nothing of a black man and a white man interacting as friends in a film – to us, they were just two men. Back in 1942, it was controversial. Dr. West almost seemed proud of us for the collective silence that ensued after his question – this is a man who probably remembers how painful it must have been to have lived through such a time. That we didn’t even pick up on it was probably something that made him pretty happy.
Song now playing – Jet “Rollover D.J.”