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Reflecting Life

Nick Clooney on film's reflection of the human condition and how Hollywood finally set the record straight about the brutality of slavery

By Steven Rosen · February 19th, 2014 · Movies
courtesy the clooneysCourtesy The Clooneys

As the March 2 date for this year’s Academy Awards approaches, and with it the growing suspense over who will win what, Nick Clooney follows from his Augusta, Ky., home with special interest.

It isn’t just that a film with his son George in a supporting role — Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón — is a leading candidate for Best Picture. It’s also because another leading candidate for Best Picture — British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures — seems an acknowledgement from Hollywood of the strongest, most provocative criticism in Clooney’s 2002 book of essays, The Movies That Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen. 

The book has remained in print, and Clooney, a well-known local news and entertainment personality who at one time was a host for the American Movie Classics cable channel, now — at age 80 — gives about 20 lectures a year on the topic. 

In his book’s final chapter, an epilogue titled, “The Movie That Never Was,” he lambastes Hollywood for never making an important, truthful major film about the history of race relations in America.

He wrote: “All that was required for me was to isolate the key movie, the brave film that was at least the precursor — and maybe the catalyst — of the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s, which led directly to historic national legislation in the 1960s. … I didn’t find one.”

Adding insult to injury, Clooney’s penultimate chapter was about the harmful effect that D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation had on racial understanding. While it was enormously innovative in its technical accomplishments, it glorified the Ku Klux Klan’s role in the post-Civil War South and was responsible in its own right for a 20th century Klan revival.  

Clooney quotes the author of The Clansman, the novel upon which Birth was based, as saying the purpose was to “revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in the audience to a good Democrat.” Clooney says the author, Reverend Thomas Dixon Jr., of North Carolina, meant “Southerner” or “racist” when he said “Democrat.” The South at that time hated the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, for wanting to end slavery and then — after the North won the Civil War — promoting Southern racial equality during a post-war period known as Reconstruction. Birth of a Nation vilified Reconstruction.

In a recent telephone interview, Clooney praised 12 Years a Slave for trying to set the record straight about the brutality of slavery. Its true story is about a free African-American from New York who was kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery. 

“[But] it does not change my opinion about whether Hollywood, particularly classic Hollywood, was craven in its approach to the race issue,” Clooney says. “What it does point out is that race continues to be a very important theme in motion pictures now that we have at long last decided to try to come to terms with this cancer grown on our body politic since its conception. 

“The point I was making in the book was that we didn’t do any of the things we could have done to make this a much easier road,” he continues. 

He also points out fewer people today see movies than in Hollywood’s Golden Era before television, when a mainstream film that honestly depicted slavery’s horrors would have had a greater impact. Clooney estimates that, at that peak, 70 percent of the population attended the movies weekly. 

“Movies then were so pervasive,” he says. “They meant so much to so many people. So we missed the moment when we could have made great strides.” And he points out that while movies were timid about race relations and widespread American segregation, President Truman integrated the armed forces in 1948, a year after the Brooklyn Dodgers introduced the first black Major League baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

“Those were true difference makers,” Clooney says.

“Movies did not join in on that and they could have been more powerful than either of those, in my judgment.”

Incidentally, for those wondering where the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind fits into Clooney’s assessment, it doesn’t fare much better than Birth of a Nation.

“Obviously, technology and other things that occurred between 1915 and 1939 made it a better movie. But I’m not sure the attitude was different at all. I didn’t think Gone With the Wind had advanced racially.”

In more recent decades, there have been movies that, to varying degrees of success, have dealt in a non-racist way with racial issues — or showcased African-American actors in non-stereotypical roles. Those have led up to 12 Years winning praise and Oscar nominations for trying to truthfully address slavery. Clooney hopes there are more to come. 

“I would love to see a reconstruction of Reconstruction movies,” he says. “Film can still tell a story, and that would be a very interesting era for it.”

The Movies That Changed Us does cover films that Clooney believes affected the American psyche for the better. There are William Wyler’s 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives about hardships faced by GIs returning from World War II, and Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 Morocco, in which Marlene Dietrich signaled that women could shape their own societal roles.

But the book strongly questions the impact of others. One is Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, Taxi Driver. The book’s chapter on it begins with a stark question: “Was the movie responsible for the assassination attempt on President Reagan?” (John Hinckley Jr., who wounded Reagan in 1981, wanted to impress Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute, by committing the kind of showy act of violence that Robert De Niro’s troubled character Travis Bickle commits in the film to save her.)

Clooney thinks that the film, to its detriment, doesn’t clearly oppose or question Bickle’s disgusted view of the squalid New York of the era. Indeed, it tends to see the city through his eyes.

Scorsese and his latest movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, are nominated for Oscars this year. Yet he’s also been criticized — in a way that echoes Clooney’s Taxi Driver complaint — for so vividly depicting the lifestyle of its central character, a corrupt but high-living stockbroker named Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). The complaint is that the film doesn’t seem to condemn him. 

Clooney hasn’t seen that yet, but he explained further his controversial Taxi Driver ideas in this interview. 

“It certainly still bothers me,” he says. “I’m not looking for redemption from movies. I am hoping an artist tries to give a little more comprehensive view of the arena in which he is exploring things. Here was that one block in Manhattan that Martin Scorsese was talking about, but no light from any other neighborhood was allowed to come in. That can be very effective as an exaggeration, but we must acknowledge it is an exaggeration.

“I could never see a circumstance under which the artist should be constrained,” Clooney says. “My hope is there is a certain rough democracy in all of this so that when people find that what they are seeing is not moving the human condition forward in any way that is palpable to them, they would decide maybe this film should just go ahead and shrivel up on the vine for lack of support.” (That didn’t happen with Taxi Driver, obviously.)

In January, Cincinnati’s Center for Holocaust & Humanity Education presented a screening of the documentary Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust. It indicts the film industry for soft-pedaling depictions of Hitler’s fascist Nazi Party and his anti-Semitic actions as he rose to power in the 1930s. That documentary’s view was that the U.S. film industry was timid out of fear of losing the lucrative German market. Meanwhile, Hitler was planning the Holocaust that ultimately murdered six million Jews. 

But Clooney, in The Movies That Changed Us, has an even more contentious take on Hollywood’s indirect responsibility for the Holocaust. He believes its post-World War I pacifist-minded films — beginning with King Vidor’s 1925 The Big Parade — “set in motion a series of events that, nearly a generation later, would make us deaf to the cries of the Holocaust.” 

Parade launched a series of other successful pacifist films. Subsequently, Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade won Best Picture Oscars. (Wings won the first in 1927-28.)

To briefly summarize Clooney’s argument, such films — which arose from the staggering death toll of World War I — depicted both sides’ soldiers as victims. War, itself, was the cruel, terrible enemy. The U.S., Britain and their allies fought Germany, Austria-Hungary and others in World War I, which left 8.5 million combatants dead, according to pbs.org. The war lasted from 1914-1918; the U.S. entered in 1917.

But Clooney believes that there really were important differences between the two sides: The Germans were worse, yet the success of those pacifist movies conditioned the American public not to think that. And they stoked a strong isolationist streak. As a result, we were too slow to believe as the Nazis came to power that they could be capable of organizing a Holocaust. After all, hadn’t Hollywood taught us the Germans were just like us? (The U.S. entered World War II late, in 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.)

“That chapter has gotten the most academic and, dare I say, intellectual response,” Clooney says now. “I was only following what I had read and seen and experienced in my own family. I believe then and now we were conditioning ourselves to stay out of any other entanglement. 

“In our laudable desire to be antiwar, I believe we began to inure ourselves to the possibilities there can be villains in the big world view of what is going on,” he explains. “We stopped listening to those who tried to tell us that there were in fact villains.”

The Germans, Clooney says, had a different view of war than the Allies. “It was grounded in the Prussian experience and they actually did things the Allies never did,” he says. “They did take hostages and kill innocent people when there were underground activities behind the lines. It was a different view of what was permissible in war and we did not take note of that.”

Clooney does find one great exception to Hollywood’s timidity — the auteurist director and movie star Charlie Chaplin, whose 1940 The Great Dictator balanced comedy with a chilling depiction of Hitler. 

“And Chaplin began earlier,” Clooney says. “It just took forever to get his movies finished. If he had been a little speedier, I think he would have been more relevant. But he was relevant enough because of his stature.”

Currently, Clooney is writing a Time-Life book on President Reagan’s pre-political career as an actor. “I saw a lot of his films as a kid,” he says. “One of my favorite films, a dark film, was Kings Row. I think it’s his best performance as an actor.” (It’s from 1942.)

Clooney, himself, once had political aspirations. He ran as a Democrat in 2004 for Kentucky’s open 4th Congressional seat. He lost after his Hollywood ties — his son, for instance — were made an issue. 

In looking at Reagan’s career, and that of other actors who have sought elected office, Clooney has come to a conclusion: “Those in show business who are Democrats would be well-advised never to run for office, because only Republicans win.”

Is that something he would tell son George, who is a political progressive and a key Hollywood supporter of President Obama? “He doesn’t have to have me tell him,” Clooney says. “He knows it very well. He saw it up close and personal with me.” ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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