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Peter T. Chattaway
Amistad Gives African American Their Due
It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy—Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples—have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1
Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film's only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith's. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers's family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.
So how does one restore religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to historical narratives such as these? For conservatives such as the Christian Film and Television Commission's Ted Baehr, the answer is, in effect, to seize control of the mainstream—that is, to return to the days when Christians assisted Hollywood in creating a central, homogenous, American myth. But in a world marked by increasingly diverse audiences and a proliferation of independent filmmakers, religion stands a greater chance of recognition if filmmakers ...