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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What movie or TV series best embodies Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream?

Today is a federal holiday in the United States, when we honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work to advance civil rights.

So we’ll honor his ideals here today, too. Today’s question: What movie or TV series best embodies Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality among all people and an end to racial strife and other bigotries?

I’m not sure there is one. Certainly, there are many good movies in particular about the fight for equality. (Just this season we have Milk, for instance.) But because we have not yet achieved King’s dream in the real world, any realistic depiction of our world may touch on the inequalities we still cope with. More notable, because the people who make movies and TV are subject to the same, sometimes subconscious bigotries King dreamt of eliminating, it’s often only productions that are explicitly about inequality that feature a diverse cast.

If I had to pick one example, though, I’d point out Battlestar Galactica, which exists in a human society that appears not to take any notice of racial differences and also, remarkably, appears not to be subject to gender inequality, either. This appears to be a conscious choice on the part of the creators of the show, because it serves to highlight the one bigotry that the people of the universe are coping with: the one that divides human from Cylon. In this universe, if there’s a Martin Luther King Jr., he’d be a skinjob.

(If you need a reminder of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, you can watch it here.

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  • t6

    Hm…that’s a tough question.

    I think I’ll go with the 1980s TV Show I’ll Fly Away for something more literal.

    But if not that show…there is a good case to be made for The Cosby Show.

  • JoshDM

    Newhart, for obvious reasons.

  • Cute. For that matter, a certain Dr. Who episode from last season comes to mind.

    Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, it’s difficult to think of a TV show currently on the air that qualifies. There’s a lot of shows like Ugly Betty and E.R. that boast multiracial casts but Ugly Betty hardly espouses the value system of the late Dr. King–though the characters do seem to get judged more on the content of their character than the color of their skin–and E.R. doesn’t appear to be the type of show that anyone admires anymore. Besides, it’s a running joke on UB that the characters also get judged on their appearance and their fashion sense and that definitely is not very King-like.

    Grey’s Anatomy used to seem like a likely contender since it’s one of the few shows with both a multiracial cast and a non-white creator. Unfortunately, it’s also a rather stupid show that is hardly a credit to Dr. King’s vision.

    And Heroes also used to be a likely contender but between the events of last season and the producers’ rather odd obsession with blonde females…no longer.

    So perhaps Eureka? A multiracial cast set in a town where people ultimately get judged more on their skills and their abilities than on their race and ethnicity…I’d say that’s the likeliest contender currently on American TV that I can think of at the moment.

  • JoshDM

    Glad you liked my idea. I was going to say St. Elsewhere, but that’s imagination, not dream.

  • Ryan

    Even before I read your whole entry I was ready to comment with Battlestar Galactica. But of course only a sci-fi show would be able to do it right. I mean even Eureka, which was said by Tonio and which I think is also a good show for this topic, is also sci-fi.

    With that in mind, I’m tempted to say Firefly and Serenity, but I’m still mulling those over.

  • AlanM

    The first thing that came to mind was Star Trek (for pretty much the same reasons as BSG). A Russian(sort of), a Scots (sort of), a woman (!) of color (!!), all getting along together. Okay, the white guy was in charge, but still…

    On a very small level, how about _Much Ado About Nothing_ (Branagh, 1993)? Denzel Washington plays Don Pedro, brother to Keanu Reeves’ Don John. As far as I can recall, it is not implied in any way that Don Pedro is black (I’m not sure if he’s from Italy or Aragon, but I suppose he could be moorish if he’s from Aragon). So, a black guy playing a white guy? Why not?

    Colorblind casting is, I’d like to think, part of what King was talking about.

  • Jan Willem

    I’d like to make a case for The Mahabharata (1989), Peter Brook’s five-hour TV version of his even longer theatre marathon based on the Indian Hindu Epic. An international, multiracial cast if ever there was one, including actors from the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan, India, Upper Volta, Senegal, and many other countries. They are pretty stunning actors, too, and each of them contributes something from their own culture to the telling of this compelling tale. Perhaps it’s a slightly more theatrical than cinematic work, but still… marvellous stuff.

  • Paul

    Ugly Betty does assert that people are judged by their looks, but also asserts that it is wrong to do so.

    Star Trek should be looked at in the context of the entire universe. Yes, two white guy captains, but also a black man and a white woman. The first black scientist on TV, women scientists and engineers, admirals of every race and gender, interracial dating and marriage. And Trek shows consistently show racism to be a bad thing, even if subconsciously the writers still have some hang ups.

    Now the first Trek’s Klingons were sort of Japanese/Russia mix, because the former were our former enemies and the latter our enemies at the time, and now I’ve heard they mostly hire black actors to play them (now they seem like a cross between samurai, Mongolian warriors, and Navaho), so I’m not sure what to make of those racial politics.

  • Peter Connolly

    James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens movie made the most impression on me with regard to breaking down sexual stereotypes and discrimination.

    At a time when women taking on combat roles in the military was a hotly debated topic, this movie didn’t make a big thing of it – it just portrayed a mixed gender combat team with women giving and taking orders and, when characters disagreed, nobody playing the gender card.

    In doing so it had more impact that a lot of movies about supposedly “exceptional” women in that it portrayed this as normal life.

  • t6

    I love BSG…but there aren’t too many black characters on the show…and they do tend to fall into the romantic racialized idea of blacks as especially spiritual.

    It is better than a lot of shows…but I don’t think it is better than Star Trek for race. But I think it is better than Star Trek for gender.

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