Sometimes it takes the briefest glimpse of something to make its absence so scandalously obvious.
Consider: Midway through the film Talk to Me, which opened Friday and stars Don Cheadle as 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, 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. 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 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. Multicharacter 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 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. Edmund Pettus Bridge. All evoke the kind of epic, good-vs.-evil showdown that movies are made for - when they're John Wayne westerns.
So why, with such promising stories and such historic sweep and importance, hasn't the civil rights era been captured in a feature film? Not surprisingly for the movie industry, the answer is portrayed as purely economic; and equally unsurprisingly, economics in Hollywood are inextricably interwoven with the still unresolved issue of race.
Andrew Manis, author of the Shuttlesworth biography A Fire You Can't Put Out, offers the following hyperbolic hypothetical: " 'Martin Luther King was a nobody and he was plucked from obscurity by people who decided he'd be the best leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, then he exploded on the scene and became a prophet to the nation, and America is such a good and moral country that we listened to him and fixed what was wrong and we all lived happily ever after.' If you have films like that, they get made."
It's not as if Hollywood hasn't tried, albeit with mixed success. There was Mississippi Burning in 1989, followed several years later by Ghosts of Mississippi. Both dealt with real-life civil rights workers - Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and, in the latter film, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers - who were murdered by white supremacists. Both engaged in a certain degree of revisionism, valorizing the white investigators of the crimes rather than emphasizing the heroic stories of their nominal subjects.
So far, the closest thing audiences have to a definitive civil rights movie is Malcolm X, Spike Lee's biographical film starring Denzel Washington as the black nationalist leader. But notwithstanding that film's compelling portrait of one man's extraordinary personal and political transformation, Malcolm X takes place largely outside the context of the mainstream civil rights movement, which at its height involved hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Overseas market thin
Ironically, a case of white guilt scuttled what might have been Hollywood's best chance of getting the most iconic civil rights story right. In the early 1990s, after Taylor Branch published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, the first installment of his three-part history of the civil rights movement, Jonathan Demme optioned the book with an eye to directing a feature adaptation. Having had a huge box office and critical success with The Silence of the Lambs, he had the pull in Hollywood to shepherd any project he wanted through the studio system.
As the script for the movie came together, Demme directed a music video for the Neville Brothers' song Sister Rosa, in which actors re-enacted Rosa Parks' act of civil disobedience in 1955. "And it was really hard for me," Demme recalled recently. "I didn't like directing the black actors to sit in the back of the bus."
"Truthfully, I just found that I didn't feel I had the stomach to direct black actors and black extras to take the kind of beating and humiliation that were visited on them in those days." Demme recalled telling Branch and co-producer Harry Belafonte: "Guys, we've got to find a young African-American to direct this. I want to produce it, and I'll do anything I can to get it onscreen, but I can't be the guy who directs it."
Without Demme at the helm, the movie stalled, in part because at that time the movie industry was undergoing a profound change, with overseas box office becoming as important as or even more important than domestic receipts to a movie's total revenue.
"Even though America has a huge export business in entertainment, movies about our own history often don't travel too well," says Edward Saxon, a producer who worked with Demme on The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. "Then you add race in. It's the received wisdom of Hollywood that movies with black themes and lead actors, especially dramas, don't travel overseas."
Bob Berney, the president of Picturehouse Films, wonders if that calculation "is still true or used as an excuse, or out of laziness. I run into that a lot: 'You'll never get international with a black cast.' But if you look at music, all the hip-hop artists appear to be huge in Europe and Asia and everywhere else.''
The scripts are there
Branch, who last year published At Canaan's Edge, the final installment of his civil rights trilogy, insists that "it can be done."
"I think some of the obstacles and the things that are holding us back from a breakthrough in film are very much like what is unresolved in American history and politics. We're still unresolved about what we think of the '60s, whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. That's what the culture wars are about."
Certainly, exceptions have come along to disprove Hollywood's calculus. Few thought that an expensive historical spectacle about a nonviolent activist in India could make its money back, and Gandhi was a huge hit. Schindler's List was another critical and commercial success about an unlikely subject. Or, those five words that changed Hollywood history: The Passion of the Christ.
Another, perhaps more relevant example is Ray, which Belafonte and his then-manager, Arnold Rifkin, tried to pitch to studios 12 years before it was finally produced. Today, several civil rights-related scripts are floating around Hollywood: According to Talk to Me director Kasi Lemmons, "There are a lot of King projects people are talking about," including one she hopes to be involved in. Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) said earlier this year he intends to make a film centered on the King assassination. Several scripts about the life of Thurgood Marshall have been circulating, including The Crusaders, in which Terrence Howard is reportedly in negotiations to star as the late Supreme Court justice. "There's a growing community of African-American directors, and a growing feeling that we should maybe look at the civil rights movement," says Lemmons, adding, "Things come into the collective consciousness in waves. Maybe you have to be far enough away from it."
Brewer's producer, Stephanie Allain, agrees. "It feels like we went through decades of 'me, me, me,' " she says, "and now, at least in Hollywood, people are talking about these kinds of movies. (It feels like) the consciousness is elevating and moving towards what we had in the civil rights era."
Branch says he's "definitely trying again" to adapt his books for the screen, either as a motion picture or a miniseries: "Some of my friends say, 'Stay out of Hollywood, you'll only get your head handed to you.' And some say, 'It's worth the sacrifice and possible humiliation because of how many young people respond to movies who would never read a fat history book.' "