by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020
Most of our fiction when it’s not about romance or comedy is about heroes. Whether in books, television shows, movies, or video games we usually identify with a hero. Quite often the hero must confront conflict with violence, but generally the violence is over-the-top and the heroes’ abilities are unbelievable. Far too often fiction promotes the cult of the gun. But what about real heroes? Heroes are individuals who will sacrifice themselves for others. Why don’t we see more real life heroes in our fiction?
I just finished reading chapter 17 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson about Allison and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, two black anthropologists who were training in Germany when the Nazis came into power. This was 1933, and they decided to flee the fascists and go to Natchez, Mississippi to study class, caste, and race. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. This was the heart of the Jim Crow south well become the civil rights era and Freedom Riders. According to Wilkerson a black person was being lynched every four days. She also reported that Nazis had studied Jim Crow laws for inspiration on how to fashion their laws to oppress the Jews, and in some instances the Nazis thought the Americans went too far. By the way, I highly recommend Caste.
Allison and Elizabeth were part of a team, with white anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner, but interestingly for the time, Allison was the team leader. Wilkerson’s book up till chapter 17 showed her readers just how dangerous it was for the two couples, especially for Allison and Elizabeth to work in the 1930s deep south. Their scientific undercover work meant taking potentially lethal risks day after day for years.
These scientists were real life heroes putting their lives on the line to make a better world for us. We need to see more movies about this kind of heroism. Are you brave enough to attempt anything like their quest? I certainly am not. In modern fiction the hero usually get to load up on weapons before confronting the enemy. Would you volunteer to spy on a hostile society with only Gandhi’s armament?
Their story would make a great movie. After reading this chapter I really wanted to know more about these four scientists, especially Allison and Elizabeth. However, I can’t find out much about them and their time in Mississippi. Allison went on to become the first black professor to get tenured at a predominantly white university (The University of Chicago, 1947). but with complications. David A. Varel wrote a whole book devoted to Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).
According to Wilkerson the Davis and Gardner couples started their research earlier and stayed longer, but other anthropologists came after them, spent less time embedded in the culture, and published sooner. Davis and the Gardners published Deep South: A Study of Social Class and Color Caste in a Southern City (1941), but it was upstaged by Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) by John Dollard and After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939) by Hortense Powdermaker. Dollard and Powdermaker gained the academic fame, and it’s why Wilkerson said in a New York Times interview that Deep South was the book she admired most that no one reads.
I’d love to read Deep South but finding a copy is turning out to be hard. It’s not in print at Amazon, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. I hope Wilkerson’s book inspires a reprinting, at least a Kindle edition. According to WorldCat it is available in some of my local university libraries, so I will try them. Still, I’d like to see their story on the big screen.
I know Hollywood distorts history badly, but while reading Wilkerson I could vaguely imagine the intense drama of their story, I’d like it visualized for me with all the vivid details movie makers can muster. I’m burned out on modern movies. I’m no longer hooked on their fantasy violence. I crave quiet realism. I understand our world and its history is full of violence, but surely it can’t be as much as our fiction implies. I’m tired of heroes with big guns. I’m tired of cartoon combat. I read the other day that the Wild West was never as violent as westerns, not even close. We need more movies about people who save the world without shooting it up because obviously too many people are thinking that’s what the world needs now the most.
6 thoughts on “Spielberg Should Make a Movie About Them”
Loud noises and fast movement create dopamine. I think movie producers play to that. How many people out of 100 are thoughtful? Maybe one?
That’s true Covert, but don’t you wish more people out of every 100 were thoughtful? Have you given up all hope? I know I have little hope, but there’s some.
I have no hope for people in general, or that the world won’t crash in an arid trash heap. (Yes, over eons it will come back to try again; not everybody is going to die).
I have read studies that demonstrate three-quarters of humans will steal if they are sure they won’t get caught, and nearly every human lies. Almost no one notices the population problem, or cares that 95% of animal life in the tropics have been killed. (I hope the statistics are correct, if not they are directionally true.)
I concentrate on helping individuals in such ways as paying for them to go to Landmark (which seems to cure lying) and helping with graduate school tuitions – and mentoring.
I appreciate your musical endeavors. For myself, I live for dopamine rushes. If you will indulge a decadent gloat, I just bought a new, two-seater sports car convertible with a 550 horsepower supercharged V8 engine. I can push a button and route the exhaust around the mufflers. Every nice afternoon I drive it aggressively over back roads listening to the straight pipes roar to old clubby bars in a nearby city. I drink a martini and drive back home less aggressively. Then I open a bottle of wine and watch old prize fights.
I guess I love dopamine rushes too. I envy you for your sports car and getting to drive on backcountry roads. That sounds very pleasant indeed. I bet it will be even nicer as fall progresses. Makes me want to get a sports car, or maybe get my wife to drive me around while I sit in the back of my pickup. I wonder what kind of sports car I would like? Lately, I’ve been watching videos of collectors of old Model A Fords from the early 1930s.
Where do you get old prize fights? Are they on DVD?
I just had the same experience reading “Caste”. As I read about Davis, I envisioned the movie scenes and wondered if there was already a movie made. I began to do a search, which is how I came across your article. Their story is truly one worth telling on the big screen!