Correction to This Article
A July 10 Style article about the civil rights movement and the movies incorrectly described a scene in "Forrest Gump" as the 1963 March on Washington. The film depicts a 1963 attempt to integrate the University of Alabama and a later antiwar march in Washington, but not the 1963 march.

Waiting for 'Action!'

Few historical figures seem better suited to a definitive biopic than Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by Julian Smith, left, and Ralph Abernathy in Memphis on March 28, 1968. Yet Hollywood has shied away from civil rights subjects, citing concerns such as the expense of period films and overseas marketability.
Few historical figures seem better suited to a definitive biopic than Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by Julian Smith, left, and Ralph Abernathy in Memphis on March 28, 1968. Yet Hollywood has shied away from civil rights subjects, citing concerns such as the expense of period films and overseas marketability. (By Jack Thornell -- Associated Press)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sometimes it takes the briefest glimpse of something to make its absence so scandalously obvious.

Consider: Midway through the film "Talk to Me," which opens Friday and stars Don Cheadle as the legendary Washington disc jockey Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene, a remarkable scene transpires in which, in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Greene tries to calm a city in flames. As the sequence plays, and the fires climb higher on 14th and U, it becomes almost a movie-within-a-movie, evoking the meaning of King's life and death in just a scant few moments.

The scene (which admittedly takes some liberties with chronology) also reminds viewers that, while familiar images of King are commonplace in 1960s montage sequences, Hollywood has yet to make the definitive King biopic. Indeed, of all the social, cultural and political touchstones of the baby boom generation -- World War II, the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate, feminism, gay rights, AIDS and all manner of political coverups -- the civil rights movement has yet to be the subject of a pivotal, defining feature film.

That the story of the most important social and political moment in this country's history has gone untold in its dominant narrative art form is shocking on any number of levels (one being that among the movement's most effective tactics was creating media images). Here is a chapter of American life whose legacy and ramifications -- from Don Imus's idea of humor to the decisions of the current Supreme Court -- are still deeply, if painfully, felt. It's a chapter filled with charismatic characters and compelling stories. It's a chapter that -- considering the ever-increasing number of bankable African American stars -- seems not just worthy of Hollywood's attention but positively ideal for a major movie event.

Ask studio executives why this is, and this is what you'll hear: Black-themed films don't play overseas. African American actors can't open movies. American filmgoers don't like dramas. Multi-character historical dramas are just too expensive.

Hollywood has always been a lagging indicator of social change, but are these answers good enough?

* * *

The civil rights era, which spanned more than a decade, will forever be defined by such icons as King and Rosa Parks. But its fascinating struggles and victories were also personified by lesser-known leaders who themselves provide tantalizing fodder for stirring, inspiring tales of drama, courage and adventure.

Just think of it: Kerry Washington signs on to play Diane Nash, the former teen beauty queen who led one of the first sit-ins at a lunch counter in Nashville, and went on to lead the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, Ala.

Or: Jamie Foxx stars in the biopic of Fred Shuttlesworth, the fiery mastermind behind some of the most famous clashes between the 1960s Freedom Riders and Birmingham's Bull Connor, he of the notorious dogs and water hoses.

Or: Mos Def as Bob Moses, the Harvard philosophy student who in 1964 helped organize Freedom Summer in Mississippi, and remained there to found the Algebra Project, designed to teach African American youngsters math. Or Queen Latifah as Fannie Lou Hamer, who stood up to the all-white, all-male Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention and in so doing sent no less than Lyndon B. Johnson into a swivet.

A Woolworth's lunch counter. A bus in Montgomery. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. All evoke the kind of epic, good-vs.-evil showdown that movies are made for -- when they're John Wayne westerns.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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