“The civil rights push deserves much of the credit”

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)
Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney Poitier is in the background, and Harry Belafonte is standing behind Brando (USIA photo, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yesterday, I came across a 1967 interview in which Charlton Heston, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, declares “we’ve got a long way to go before the Negro image on screen catches up with reality.” Being familiar with Heston’s right-wing, pro-gun politics of his later, NRA years, the interview came as a bit of a surprise. So did, after taking to Google for background, the above photograph from the 1963 March on Washington. Nor had I realized that Heston, still associating himself in King’s legacy, was not only a Second Amendment activist but a committed culture warrior on a number of fronts by the 1990s.

Now, judging by the 1967 interview, Heston was no radical on the issue of black images in film or on racial questions generally. He speaks of progress made, citing Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby approvingly. Pressed on his personal contribution, he mentions a prospective “picture about a professional football team and the girl who plays opposite me will be a Negro,” acknowledging that it won’t “make a shattering impression on the movie industry,” but calling it “a step in the right direction.” (Heston may have been talking about 1969’s Number One; his costar in that film was the fabulous, but white, Jessica Walter.) And he leads off by celebrating the civil rights movement in expressly universalist terms, noting that black efforts to integrate technical unions had undermined their insularity and nepotism in ways that aided whites too: “There’s a huge wave of employment reform surging through the movie industry these days, especially behind the camera, and the civil rights push deserves much of the credit for making the situation better for both races” (Walter Burrell, “NAACP Has Ripped Apart Hollywood’s ‘In Crowd’,” Philadelphia Tribune, January 14, 1967).

Still, I find Heston’s evolution—he might have denied that he’d evolved—from civil rights marching Democrat to “white pride”-defending Republican fascinating. All the more so because it seems to have been part of a broader phenomenon. Ronald Reagan is, of course, the archetypal case. Matt Jacobson and Gaspar González offer an interesting account of Frank Sinatra’s changing politics in their book on The Manchurian Candidate. Are there more examples? Can we think about these liberal-to-conservative Hollywood stars as a group, even if their evolutions proceeded along somewhat different timelines? Is it significant that all three of the actors mentioned here engaged in at least some early-career activism against racial prejudice, or in support of civil rights? Is it possible that changing racial dynamics within the film industry helped—alongside many other factors—to reshape their politics by the 1970s and 1980s?

These aren’t, precisely, questions I’m aiming to answer with my dissertation, which tackles only a slice of a much larger history of the civil rights movement and racial politics in Hollywood. On the other hand, I’m increasingly realizing that the campaigns against film stereotypes that I’m examining are hard to detach from this context. By the 1960s, they had become deeply intertwined with demands for altered hiring practices and, broadly, for greater African American power within the industry. As my research proceeds, Heston’s case prompts me to think more about the reception afforded such demands, and to consider how the growing black presence in Hollywood, the fraying of old interracial alliances, and rightward migrations like those undertaken by these actors might fit together.

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