With stars like Will Smith reigning the box office and directors like Tyler Perry cranking out movie after movie, you’d think there would be more great films about the most American of stories: the legacy of slavery and racism on both white and black Americans.
They’re few and far between. Films like Glory, Malcolm X, Amistad, Mississippi Burning, and Do the Right Thing come and go, but Hollywood in general is skittish about touching a raw and touchy issue.
Like Oscar nominee The Help, Deadline seeks to shine light on shameful and dark episodes in America’s history.
A young man is gunned down in Alabama. Wallace Simpson is missed by his mother Mary Pell (Jackie Welsch) and the African-American community to which he belonged. Justice, however, turns a seemingly blind eye. No one investigates. No one is charged. After all, the victim is black and in this racially charged South, it’s best to not ask questions.
Heiress Trey Hall (Lauren Jenkins) likes to ask questions. She starts her own investigation, one that will lead to Nashville reporters Matt Harper (Steve Talley) and Ronnie Bullock (Eric Roberts). Together, the three uncover the legacy of dark Southern racism, coverups, and violence. However, they also shine a light on dignity, justice, and the emerging New South.
Adapted from the novel Grievances by Mark Ethridge, Deadline is based on the true story of Ethridge’s journalistic investigation of the 1970 murder of Wallace Youmans in South Carolina.
The murder was not only conceived by white men in a racially motivated act, but justice was thwarted by a system of authorities who turned a blind eye or actively covered up the crime.
This is an essentially American story that continues to this day, as evidenced by the attention circling the case of George Zimmerman, accused of murder in the shooting of a black youth while Zimmerman acted as a Neighborhood Watch volunteer.
Still, we don’t see much of it on screen. For every Crash or Grand Canyon, there are fifty Avengers that sidestep the thorny questions of race relations.
That may be changing.
With the success of The Help, which managed to put a warm, gentle, and kind face on fighting racism, more movies about the issue are in the pipestream. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained will hit theaters in December. Reported to be a brutal and relentless story of vengeance acted out by a former slave, it will be neither warm nor kind. Jaime Foxx stars.
An all star cast is lined up for Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, due out in 2013.
Is America ready to deal with its past onscreen? We’re about to find out.
After all, one of the widely acknowledged American movies of all time addresses the issue: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Sometimes a little bravery creates something truly great.
This article was written as part of the Patheos Movie Club for Deadline.