Turbulence of ’68 paved way for Obama, new revolution

Forty years ago, we were on the cusp of a bona fide revolution. Now, with the certain nomination of
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Forty years ago, we were on the cusp of a bona fide revolution. Now, with the certain nomination of Barack Obama, we may be on the verge of another one.

Who would have thought that we would have a black nominee, and potentially a black first lady? Wasn’t it just the other day that some of us kids were watching a prim Jackie Kennedy taking us on a tour of the White House?

That was just before the revolution, the age of Camelot, a term inspired by the Broadway musical and then the movie. Everything seemed so new, so pristine, so hopeful.

Then the assassination, Vietnam, and two more assassinations in 1968. Bobby Kennedy, slain in L.A.; Martin Luther King Jr., killed in Memphis. It was all so surreal. One horrific event after another. President Johnson declares he will not run. Two years later, National Guardsmen open fire on a group of students at Kent State.

Everything changed

It was as if a tornado suddenly descended on us in the midst of a perfectly warm and sunny day. Innocence was obliterated, sons took up moral arms against fathers, many of them proud World War II veterans who could not believe their boys were burning draft cards, marching in the streets and seriously thinking of fleeing to Canada. I was a young man in the early stages of a teaching career. Friends died, two students never returned from the war, and one of them fled to Paris. He is now a French citizen, still disenchanted with turbulent memories.

In September 1969, Paul Goodman penned an article published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was titled “The New Reformation,” and the central thesis was that “the situation [in America] is very like 1510 when [Martin] Luther went to Rome. There is everywhere protest, revaluation, attack on the Establishment.”

As if it were a prophesy, eight years earlier, John Osborne wrote “Luther,” in which referring to corruption in the Catholic Church, the title character told a cardinal, ‘‘A withered arm is best amputated, an infected place is best scoured out, and so you pray for healthy tissue and something sturdy and clean that was crumbling and full of filth.’’

No obligation for a revolutionary to come up with a replacement program. Get rid of the pus within and take your chances. In 1968, the new revolutionaries felt the same about their government. Picture a situation in which two Jesuit priests, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, led a draft-burning party at the Selective Service Unit in Maryland.

Movies reflect change

In his compelling book “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,” Mark Harris aptly demonstrates how the Oscar entries of 1968 reflected the changes within the culture.

The nominees that year were “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Dr. Dolittle.” The only establishment entry was “Dolittle,” a selection resulting less from quality than from studio politicking.

“Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” were, says Harris, “game changers” that blew the cover off a devotion to standard fare; only two years before the winner was the insipid but eternally cheerful “Sound of Music.” Brutal and violent, “Bonnie and Clyde” served notice that, in the throes of war and protest, American tastes had grown tougher. After panning the movie and losing his job for being out of sync with the times, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther begrudgingly acknowledged that Arthur Penn’s film was “a landmark — no film turned out in the 1960s was more clever in capturing the amoral restlessness of youth in those years.”

In 1968, Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” turned out to be the highest grossing film of that year. The story of a young man who rebelled against the establishment struck a mighty major chord among audiences of all ages.

United Artists backed “In the Heat of the Night” because “it could be produced so cheaply that it would never have to play in the South,” where audiences would be repelled by the sight of a black lawman played by Sidney Poitier taking on a redneck sheriff portrayed by Rod Steiger, who would go on to win the Best Actor Oscar.

Bittersweet accolade

For Poitier, who also starred in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the rather tame story of a black doctor marrying an upper-class white woman, his time had arrived. Harris notes that the nation’s theater owners named Poitier the biggest box office star in America — the first time a black actor had ever held that spot.

It was a bittersweet accolade for an actor even black leaders regarded as too soft. That sent Poitier into seclusion; for all practical purposes, his career was over.

How ironic that a black man achieving acclaim is rejected by those he says he was trying to help by “making a positive contribution to the image of Negro people in America.”

“I guess I was born out of joint with the times,” Poitier told a reporter.

1968 culture demanded more than what Harris calls “a symbol of accommodation to white America.”

Forty years later, we may ask what Americans want from a black presidential candidate. Certainly not a man with the raging anger of Obama’s black now ex-minister. On the other hand, and with the revolution behind us, mainstream America is too advanced, too sophisticated to want or tolerate an “accommodating” black candidate, another doctor who comes to dinner.

Old news that is, for the fact is that we have already changed. Even if Obama does not win, the ascendancy of a black Christian man with a Muslim father is as surprising and refreshing as the changes in 1968, reflected in part by the shifts in movie offerings and tastes.

We are not a nation out of trouble, but time and tolerance have done their work, and in what amounts to a peaceful revolution. Before we begin to lock and zero in on a presidential candidate we will support, we should take a moment to step aside and congratulate ourselves for a cultural triumph that leaves other, more rigidly entrenched nations respectful and envious.

Categories: Life and Arts

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