When the civil rights era is depicted onscreen, there are often billy clubs, fire hoses, attack dogs, marches, and protests. Covering civil rights leaders — like in Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma — often means showing the most difficult and bloody parts of the civil rights movement. This past year, however, a trio of movies set in the 1950s and ’60s — Fences, Loving, and Hidden Figures — are stepping away from overtly violent physical manifestations of racism to show how practices like segregation affected black Americans psychologically, at work and at home.
The film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Fences follows the Maxson family, which centers around explosive patriarch Troy (Denzel Washington). Husband to Rose (Viola Davis), brother to Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), and father to Cory and Lyons (Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby, respectively), Troy simultaneously delights and destroys everyone he holds close. The lifelong Negro Leagues baseball player served time in jail after killing a man; when he's finally released, he's too old to join the newly integrated Major League Baseball.
Troy and Rose disagree about whether it was ageism or racism that killed Troy’s chances of baseball stardom, but Washington told BuzzFeed News that Troy's major problem is that he "just can't move on." "He's stuck. He forgets the fact that he killed a man and went to jail," Washington said in a recent phone interview. "Maybe he would have made it. All of this happened because he killed someone and went to jail.”
“His wife says, ‘Why don't you admit you were just too old,’ and he says, ‘What are you talking about I was just too old? I just wasn't the right color,’” Washington added. "So that's his hangup.” Racism is the main scapegoat for Troy's insecurities and how he projects them onto others.
In his frustration, Troy thwarts his youngest son’s (viable) dreams of becoming a professional football player, pushing Cory toward his grocery store job instead. “Troy kills all of that because of his bitterness, not because of any racism necessarily because they are coming to give him a scholarship," Washington said. "So [Cory] was about to do better, but his father killed it because of his bitterness."
Rather than the explosive epic that usually marks a civil-rights-era film, Fences provides a nuanced look at a somewhat ordinary black family, removed from the marching, but still adapting to the changes of the time. Racism will always be a specter looming over their black family, but there are more opportunities for Troy, Rose, and Cory to succeed when the audience meets them. While Troy benefits from decreased racial tensions — becoming the first black garbage truck driver in the area — he is so soured by the racism and ageism he experienced in sports over the years that he uses what held him back as a reason to keep his son from surpassing him.
Loving, which was directed by Jeff Nichols and released in November, focuses on an ordinary family as well, one that finds itself tied to the civil rights movement unintentionally. Richard and Mildred Loving (played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) were a couple in rural Virginia who got married in Washington, DC, and started a family before being jailed for breaking Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in 1958.
“I didn't know about this, and that upset me because I felt like this should be a fundamental part of our American history," Nichols said at the New Yorker Festival in early October. "It almost seems like we have a threshold for civil rights history … but there's more to talk about and there's more to be celebrated.”
Loving depicts an interracial couple who live life as best they can in the face of looming adversity until they are exiled from Virginia after the police break into their home and see them in bed together, with their marriage certificate on the wall. “I found myself thinking a lot about just the psychological threat that they had to live under and then how fascinating is it that this white man in the 1960s is living under a threat that the black community has been and probably continues to live under in so many places and instances," Nichols said. "Like, what an interesting thing to try and get people to feel. Maybe that's more important than some violent action or something that I could just invent. … What I was hoping to do was try and build up this idea that it's not the specific threat, it's the idea of any day somebody could come up that road, and at best, it would be a police officer.”
Loving forgoes most of the courtroom drama in favor of showing the Lovings at home, not as political figures. “Especially in a year like , it is very easy for us all to go to our corners and adhere to our political stances, social stances, whatever they are, and we forget about the people at the center of all these things, and that's what it really is about," Nichols said. "These are not social debates, these are not political debates, they're human debates and humanity at the center of them, and that's all Richard and Mildred were doing. Their existence bothered people, and how do you argue against your existence? You can't.”
During research for the film, Nichols went to the Lovings' house in Virginia looking for insight as to why Mildred, who was court-ordered to live in Washington, DC, went against the law to raise her children in a state where they were unwanted. “You just say, ‘Why would anyone want to live in hiding under threat of arrest or much, much worse, or have their family live under that threat?’ and I think it was because she was very much connected to this place," Nichols explained. “It's not just about it being beautiful. It just has a feeling to it that it was very easy for me to be drawn into it. ... It is a very necessary, unique place in this story to allow these two people to fall in love.” In Loving, Mildred’s return to Virginia isn't depicted as a political statement — it's a conscious decision she makes to raise her children in the environment she grew up in and loves, regardless of consequence.
This month’s Hidden Figures is of the same ilk as Loving. The film, directed by Theodore Melfi, focuses on the untold story of three black women at NASA who were essential in figuring out the calculations that would allow the late John Glenn to be the first American to orbit Earth. "I couldn't believe that there were women that we didn't know about that were integral in the calculations for the space race," Melfi told BuzzFeed News. "I was just blown away by that, and then to think that they were black women that were involved, knowing NASA was segregated, knowing that women, black women weren't even allowed to vote at that time ... it was just a tremendous and impactful story."
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) all broke boundaries in their own way, and without carrying picket signs, possibly because protesting wasn’t an option. "In 1961 and ’62, Virginia small-town Langley, Hampton Roads, Virginia, there were no protests, there were no fire hoses, there were no sit-ins. We dug, we searched, we tried, we wanted," Melfi said. "There was none of that. These people lived very quiet middle-class lives, and they didn't want trouble. The trouble that they thought was civil rights, that was a youth mission. Like we see Black Lives Matter today as a youthful mission … youth and colleges are where all the great stuff starts. It's where all the fire comes out and builds into a nationwide movement. … There was none of that in Hampton. So we chose to focus on the racism that was there, that was prevalent at the time.”
That racism in Hidden Figures presents itself in Katherine having to walk a half mile to the colored bathroom, Dorothy not being promoted to a supervisor position, and Mary being unable to become an engineer without attending a white school, the latter two of which are also based in sexism.
Melfi avoids calling Hidden Figures a civil rights movie, but he recognizes that the racial themes it hits on are still very much a part of our culture. "It's the unconscious biases, it's the looks you get from people because of the color of your skin or your sexual preference. It's not getting promoted. It's getting doors slammed in your face,” he said.
Melfi also hopes that the fact that people of different genders and races came together in the early ’60s to get Glenn in orbit will resonate with today's widely divided society. "We put a man in space, we put a man around the world, around the globe, and that's what needs to happen today," he said. "With all the division in the country, America can find its unity, and this is a small reminder of that."
With films like 1988's Mississippi Burning, 1990's The Long Walk Home, and 2013's The Butler, Hollywood has a long history of focusing on the more prominent figures and violent moments in the civil rights movement. But movies that focus on ordinary people, like Fences, Loving, and Hidden Figures, normalize African-American history as American history.