Zimmerman. Johns. Jones.

14 Jul

(I mostly stay away from topical writing. But the Zimmerman case is percolating in my thoughts. I can’t shake it, the various photos and incongruous facts, the sickening injustice of his walking free, and the vague sense that as a white dude in America I’m somehow partially culpable. This is an inadequate response by any measure, but at the moment it’s all I have. Here’s my one and only post on the issue.)

1.

I’m digesting the George Zimmerman verdict. It’s heart-breaking, unnerving, predictable. I’m not surprised. I’m angry I’m not surprised. I’m deeply unsettled by the pre-ordained feeling of the trial; we’ve been here so many times before. I feel culpable somehow.

I don’t know how to respond to it; I don’t know how to process it; I don’t know how to write about it. So I’ll write about a forgotten speech instead, by way of “black[1]” cinema.

2.

There aren’t many great—or even good—films about the black experience in America. The reason for this is simple economics and institutionalized racism. I can name a handful off the top of my head: Do The Right Thing; Uptight! (and amazing little movie about a group of black youths shifting from accommodation to black separatism); Anna Lucasta; Killer of Sheep; Boyz in the Hood; and Malcolm X.

And plenty of pretty good films—The Best Man; Cabin in the Sky; Separate But Equal (a square but well made movie about Thurgood Marshall); The Great White Hope (James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxer, interesting but uneven); Devil in a Blue Dress (a good movie that somehow doesn’t quite make it); Cooley High (I suppose, although I haven’t seen it in years); Clockers (a very fine movie although a pale shade to the magnificent novel it’s adapted from); School Daze, Hoodlum, Strictly Business, Roll Bounce, Love Jones and maybe half a dozen others.

And some horribly misguided films, which often do brisk business, like Glory (which seeks to glorify the pointless death of a black battalion of soldiers, even making the argument that their deaths served some high moral purpose); Menace II Society (ostensibly about the corrupt systems that drive young black males to murder, but in application a vicious piece of exploitation, although entertaining in a grisly sort of way); Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (an incredibly square chamber room comedy drama that misuses everyone’s talent, excepting an exceptional performance from Katherine Hepburn); American Gangster (seeks to celebrate a criminal empire because it’s a black criminal empire, employing a horrid moral parity with no scrutiny); Ali (well made and well acted and yet somehow still bad and missing some crucial component) and the crown jewel, Mississippi Burning, which turns the mostly apathetic agents during Mississippi Freedom Summer into hardline, uncompromising heroes, leaving the true heroes, the black and Jewish activists, as a sidebar).

And, of course, the entire Tyler Perry catalog, which manages to misinterpret the entirety of Jesus’s teachings, portraying black women as either virgins or whores, and saturated with false-note melodrama to boot.

But there are these little oddball movies, some of them made for television, that pop up all the time. Some are fantastic, such at The Temptations, one of my favorite films.

And one of these, The Vernon Johns Story, is the perfect response for the Zimmerman verdict.

3.

Vernon Johns was a black Baptist minister and a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the 1940s. He was a passionate and uncompromising dude—along with Fred Shuttlesworth and Bayard Rustin, one of my personal heroes—and after a black man was murdered in the streets of Montgomery, with no repercussions to the murderer, he gave a sermon now known as: “It’s safe to kill negroes.”[2] You should read the full text of it, as it’s as damning a document of violence and white privilege as I’ve ever read.

Here James Earl Jones, always in superb form, delivers a portion of the speech. It’s an astonishing scene, and somehow just as relevant now as it was then. I don’t need to write anything else about it. Here’s the clip. Preach on, Pastor Johns. I wish you were still with us.


[1] A troubling and problematic name given to a varied subset of movies, but the label for the moment we’re stuck with.

[2] Also known as “It’s okay to kill Negroes.”

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