Civil Rights And Contemporary America: Analysing filmic representations of the Civil Rights era in the recent ‘historical race dramas’ Selma And Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Mitch op’t Hoog
This thesis analyses how America’s Civil Rights era is represented in the ‘historical race drama’, films directly and indirectly addressing not only historical but also contemporary racial issues. It aims to examine whether and how cinematic form shapes representations of key historical moments and figures of the Civil Rights era, influence popular criticism, and conveys contemporary political meaning. The thesis examines two films as case studies: Selma (2014), a film about Martin Luther King and his attempts to attain voting rights for African-Americans in the town of Selma, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013), a film based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served many presidents from 1952 until 1986. While cinematic and media studies repeatedly claim that film can contain a political message, Isaacs notes that cultural studies approaches to cinema tend to focus on narrative rather than (also) form, overlooking cinematic forms capacity to signify and shape specific meanings. By focusing on formal elements such as sound, music, editing/montage, composition, mise-en-scène, and cinematography this thesis demonstrates how cinematic form influenced the popular critical receptions of each film. While formal elements in the critically acclaimed Selma support its narrative, they complicate, even counter, the narrative in less praised Lee Daniels’ The Butler.