(The Root) — The national celebrations and commemorations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington have, once again, marked race as a subject of exploration in popular culture. The recent critical and commercial success of Lee Daniels' The Butler, which offered an epic cinematic depiction of the civil rights movement's heroic period, has underscored this point.
This past summer's racial discontent, which featured roiling protests that compelled President Obama to publicly address racial injustice, seems to have primed audiences to embrace America's complicated racial past. In addition to The Butler, Hollywood's fall movie lineup features the much-anticipated Twelve Years a Slave, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man forced into slavery during the 19th century, and Long Walk to Freedom, a biopic of Nelson Mandela, both of which are already receiving Oscar buzz.
Race is attracting critical attention in American theaters, too: The play All the Way examines the pivotal year from Nov. 22, 1963, to election night on Nov. 3, 1964, when the accidental president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, placed his indelible stamp on American history and national race relations. Staged at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., the production offers one of theater's most historically complex and artistically satisfying depictions of the civil rights era.
President John F. Kennedy's shocking assassination marked beginnings and endings in American history, which All the Way explores in a manner that is at once sprawling and concise. The pivotal historical moments between the Kennedy assassination and Johnson's election are all recounted: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's 1964 summer project, destined to be remembered as Freedom Summer, which was punctuated by the martyrdom of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; Johnson's efforts to hold the South in the wake of the Mississippi Freedom Party's challenge to unseat the segregated white delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.; Fannie Lou Hamer's riveting televised testimony to the credentials committee that threatened to undo Johnson's election plans; Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins and other civil rights leaders' efforts to push a comprehensive civil rights act that would include voting-rights protection; and finally, Johnson's herculean efforts to use the crisis of Kennedy's assassination to pass watershed legislation, consolidate the Democratic Party and legitimize his own presidency.
The narrative arc pivots around Johnson, played by Emmy Award-winning Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston, and the social, political and racial forces that shaped his first tumultuous year in office. Cranston's LBJ is, like the historical Johnson, a man of enormous appetites, ego and snake-oil charm. Johnson's ability to cajole, threaten and plead his way into swaying even long-standing political opponents is rendered with subtlety and precision.
King, NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, SNCC activists Stokely Carmichael and Bob Moses and Mississippi Freedom Party leader Hamer come to life in a historical reimagining that expertly outlines the brutal and often messy nature of American democracy during the 1960s.
All the Way's villains include FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and a coterie of Southern Dixiecrat politicians whose gleeful racism serves as a sort of Greek chorus to the various proceedings.
The play's chief strength is its ability to convey the way in which all politics is deeply personal. The characters of King, Wilkins, Young, Carmichael and Moses are wonderfully animated in a powerful scene that illustrates the generational tensions between the pragmatic Wilkins, the dignified King and the young firebrands of SNCC. Hamer, a sharecropper-turned-activist and one of the movement's unsung heroes, is given an eloquent and moving portrayal by Crystal A. Dickinson.
Scenes featuring black icons of the civil rights struggle lend the impression that one is eavesdropping on the actual private dialogue of Carmichael, Wilkins and King (well acted by William Jackson Harper, Peter Jay Fernandez and Brandon J. Dirden respectively). It's a testament to playwright Robert Schenkkan's keen eye for historical detail that the play's high point occurs away from the White House and LBJ.
It happens instead in Mississippi, at the funeral of Freedom Summer martyr James Chaney. Dave Dennis, a young CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) leader, gives a eulogy for the slain activist (who died along with white activists Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) that is fueled by outrage and grief. Eric Lenox Abrams (who doubles, less effectively, as Bob Moses) gives a passionate and accurate rendering of Dennis' grief, standing in the back of the theater and howling in rage and bitterness that, at the preview performance I attended, had much of the audience in stunned silence.
All the Way is particularly impressive in the way it humanizes Johnson, one of America's most important presidents, by offering an intimate portrait of the political worlds (including some of which he was only barely aware or concerned about) that shaped him. Born and raised in Texas Hill Country, Johnson escaped humble roots to become a New Dealer who, even as a congressman and Senate majority leader, never abandoned his dreams of assisting underdogs.
Yet despite his empathy for the poor, Johnson was a product of the Jim Crow South who casually used the n-word in private for much of his life. This Janus-faced personality made him a cunning adversary, one whose chameleonlike ability helped make him, for a time, at least, a man who could win the confidence of segregationist Democrats and civil rights leaders such as King.
The play ends with Johnson at his moment of triumph, exulting in the landslide victory over Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater that, if only for a moment, satisfied the new president's insatiable need for admiration and approval. The disappointments blazed by the Vietnam War, racial backlash and urban riots are far off in the distance. It's a credit to Cranston's incisive portrayal that one is left hopeful, as if witnessing for the first time the story of Johnson's, and the country's, political fate.
All the Way, which closes Oct. 12, is an important contribution to a national conversation about race and democracy that is happening in America. It exemplifies why talking about race and American history is so vital to the future of democracy and movements for racial equality and economic justice.
Ultimately, in its evocative and multidimensional rendering of a key chapter in the civil rights era's heroic period, All the Way reminds us of the stakes of political transformation when millions of lives are in the balance. The production's flesh-and-blood approach to the confrontations, disputes, heartbreak and successes of the civil rights struggle offers a hopeful and much-needed corrective to the mainstream remembrances that threaten to mythologize the era and its heroes, as well as to a contemporary political dysfunction that makes us long for a past when Americans seemed capable of doing the impossible.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.