Sunday, November 10, 2013

Susan D. Carle's "Defining the Struggle"

Susan Carle teaches legal ethics, anti-discrimination law, labor and employment law, and torts at American University Washington College of Law. She writes primarily about the history of social change lawyering, anti-discrimination law, and topics at the intersections between civil rights, employment, and labor law. In the past she has been a community organizer, civil rights lawyer, and union-side labor lawyer.

Here Carle dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915:
Defining the Struggle is a nonfiction book, but it would make a terrific and important movie. It tells a story only the most well-informed historical buffs already know: that of the founding, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in the United States, of the first national civil rights organizations intended to have long-term status. These organizations’ varied experiments with social change strategies would sow the seeds for later major national civil rights efforts that would eventually give birth to the U.S. civil rights movement. The setting is a time of brutal racial oppression imposed by social, economic, and legal institutions during the so-called nadir period, in which American race relations were at their all-time low following the end of slavery -- a time of rising segregation, Jim Crow laws, brutal lynchings and other race violence, and a largely indifferent public reaction. In one respect this is a story about African American history -- a story of courageous work by and for African Americans. But it is also a general American history story about the early struggle for racial equality, which, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously described, presented the country with the greatest problem of the Twentieth Century. These early efforts have been largely overlooked by mainstream historians. What better way to turn this around than to make a movie that brings the relevant historical figures and their work to life? Here are my suggestions as to a “dream team” cast of leading characters:

W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the Niagara Movement – Jeffrey Wright (relatively young but already full of gravitas)

Alexander Walters, head of the National Afro American Council – Idris Elba (powerful and pragmatic)

Frederick McGhee, lawyer for the Afro American Council and the Niagara Movement – Denzel Washington (charismatic and devastatingly handsome)

T. Thomas Fortune – Spike Lee (brilliant, high strung, somewhat erratic and very thin)

Mary Church Terrell, founder and three-term president of the National Association of Colored Women – Alicia Keys (regal, beautiful, socially committed)

Ida Wells Barnett – Naomie Harris (intensity packed into a smallish stature)

Booker T. Washington – Terrence Howard (focused, charismatic, and shrewd)

Jesse Lawson, dynamic legislative director of the Afro American Council - Don Cheadle (sincere, visionary, willing to attempt the impossible)

Lugenia Hope Burns, founder of the Atlanta Neighborhood Union – Kerry Washington (can-do energy for every challenge)

Carrie Clifford, founding leader of the Ohio Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, key activist in the Niagara Movement, close friend of Du Bois, and dynamo organizer for the Washington, D.C., branch of the NAACP – Carmen Ejogo (wouldn’t it be nice to see this leading couple -- i.e., Wright/Ejogo, married in real life -- play roles in the same movie?)

Mary White Ovington, white social worker who helped found the NAACP – Elisabeth Moss (serious, well meaning, willing to portray a character with some race privilege flaws)

Harry Smith, wise older editor of the Cleveland GazetteClarke Peters (still deeply committed to the racial justice movement, but a bit jaded with a tendency to caustic remarks)

Oswald Garrison Villard, founding chair of the NAACP -- Jeremy Piven (energetic, somewhat self-important)
Learn more about Defining the Struggle at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue