The 1960s and Counter-Culture In Film

This is a piece written for a history elective class that explored American history in various time periods through film, comparing historical accuracy and artistic license while articulating the essential thematic ideas surrounding that time period. The pictures and captions have been added for this publication.

Each of the films viewed during the 1960s and Counter-Culture unit dealt with certain themes in their own way. Far From Heaven is a period piece showing the hypocrisy of upper-class white society in the 1950s as viewed from the early 21st century. In the Heat of the Night deliberates on how blacks and whites can help each other and should come together for a common good—to solve a brutal murder, in this case. Platoon explores America’s loss of innocence during the Vietnam War and how one man can pull through even though the world descends to madness around him.

Racial issues, being paramount in the Counter-Culture era, tended to be the central theme of each film. Far From Heaven depicted the idealized 1950s New England White Anglo-Saxon Protestant society of doting housewives, fedora-topped working-man husbands, 2.5 unassuming children—with no black people to speak of anywhere. Not that black people (“negroes”) were spoken of anyway. As one character remarked, “There aren’t any negroes in Hartford,” and the camera pans to show the house party is served by a cadre of black caterers. Racial relations tended to be defined by the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court case stating that “separate but equal” facilities are legal: Blacks were not spoken of in “polite” society, but were seen often times as an entire separate society, not to be infringed upon by either side (the juxtaposition of the two cafe scenes), and even as a second class of people who were to be tended and subject to the care of the more affluent whites. Such care, however, must be limited to an occasional public verbal affirmation of conceptually “supporting” the NAACP. If one shows any more than polite professional distance, she (in this specific case) runs the risk of being labeled a “negro lover,” the butt of every gossip chain, and virtually shunned from the society that she helped to create and proliferate.

“You’re in good hands, Mrs. Whittaker”

In Platoon, racial issues were not as strongly emphasized over other themes dealing with the futility of war and the “lost cause” that was Vietnam. Everyone lives and dies by the rifle in combat, and bullets have no racial prejudice. That being the case, there were instances of animosity between blacks and whites early on, but they were quickly wiped clean after the first patrol. The issue became one of whether or not one was a responsible soldier. Race relations were a distant trouble argued about by people who didn’t understand the concept of survival. Everyone—all the cool kids, anyway—regardless of color, gathered around The Doors and Jimi Hendrix to smoke marijuana and relax from the nightmare in the jungle.

“This was a fucking bomb dropping on Beaver Cleaverville.
For a few seconds, this place was Armageddon!”

In the Heat of the Night had the most obvious exploration of racial relations in the American South, as it begins with an innocent black man being arrested on suspicion of murder and evolves into that black man being quite the competent homicide detective and solving the crime at hand. Southern racial tension tended to be less delicate than the hoity-toity New England-style friendly racism. Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs has to fight and overcome extreme prejudice and injustice just to do his job. From something as simple as being consistently denigrated as “boy” (to which he epically replies, “They call me MISTER TIBBS!”) to being chased down and nearly beaten to death by a group of drunken rednecks for “being uppity” towards the town boss. Tibbs is the embodiment of black affirmation—he is educated, competent, persistent, driven, and so well-written and acted that he is loved by viewers both black and white as well as being accepted and appreciated by the white characters in the film. Unfortunately, most of the plot deals with his having to overcome adversity: the town mayor demanding that he be taken off the case, threats on his life, not being able to rent a hotel room because of his skin color. The murder victim’s wife is, at first, the only advocate he has, and that’s only because she’s not a local and wants more than anything for her husband’s killer to come to justice.

White and black put aside their differences to combat vampires
in 1960s Mississippi.

Sexuality is another major theme explored in the Counter-Culture era, but not explored much in the films we watched, with the exception of Far From Heaven. There are two major sexual liberation themes being explored within this film. First is the female liberation that Julianne Moore’s Cathy Whittaker forces herself to undergo as her marriage falls apart. She embodies the strong, spirited woman that led the charge when her life was in a downward spiral. Her friends joke about her being a “revolutionary” in college, calling her “Red” in a tongue-in-cheek sort of attitude. She holds herself together even as friends turn their backs on her. By the end of the film, she is the single mother of two children, a ridiculed “negro lover,” and victim of a scandalous affair on the part of her (now ex) husband making her way through the rest of her life—maybe alone, but certainly stronger.

“I understand Mr. Hefner is seeking models
for his new magazine.”

On the other hand, while the fires of women’s liberation are being kindled through Cathy Whittaker, Dennis Quaid’s Frank Whittaker explores a very different kind of sexual liberation. Frank has lost sexual passion with his wife, and has made a habit of “staying late at the office” while the audience (and eventually Cathy) find that he’s been engaged in at least one homosexual affair. Now, being the 1950s, and Frank being an otherwise-upstanding member of the community, this behavior must, obviously, come from a psychiatric problem that Frank (with the help of his doctor) desperately tries to overcome. As the movie progresses, Frank’s repression of his homosexual tendencies causes his marriage and family to fall apart. Eventually, Frank decides to leave his family and pursue a supposedly happy life in a relationship with a cabana boy he met while on vacation in Miami. This, of course, is scandalous because of certain repressive attitudes not only toward homosexuality at the time, but also of what gender roles are played and of the idea of masculinity and femininity. Frank gets violent at the idea of his masculinity being questioned, and strikes his wife, to which she dismisses it as “just an accident” (another idea of sexuality and gender roles: no matter what, the man is right). Although the characters are rather exaggerated, the themes are poignant enough to reverberate into the 21st century.



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