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Peter Lev discusses civil rights and film with Business Insider

August 28, 2013, marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a defining moment in the history of the United States when religious and civil rights leaders and hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered to fight for equality, jobs and freedoms.

As the nation commemorates this important anniversary, Business Insider interviewed two film historians—including Peter Lev, also an author and Towson University electronic media and film professor—on the narrative movies they believe have had an impact on the civil rights movement.

Peter Lev film class

Peter Lev, right, leads a Towson film class.

Lev opened up by talking about the strict motion picture censorship policies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, which dictated that no film could show miscegenation—the marriage, cohabitation or sexual relations of two people of different races—of any kind. The policy was discontinued in 1956.

Lev pointed to the 1957 film “Island in the Sun,” which explored, among other themes, two interracial relationships—one between Harry Belafonte’s character David Boyeur and Joan Fontaine’s character Mavis Norman, and another between Dorothy Dandridge’s character, a black drug store clerk, and John Justin’s character, an aide to the governor. Lev points out that the film is set on the fictitious Caribbean island of Santa Marta instead of in America. “It would have been forbidden under the previous production codes.”

Ten years later, the landmark Supreme Court Case, Loving v. Virginia, ruled that laws against miscegenation were unconstitutional.

Another film named by Lev was Martin Ritt’s “Paris Blues,” which was produced in 1961 and juxtaposed the kindness experienced by blacks in Paris and the bigotry they encountered in the United States. He also mentioned the daring filmmaking of the Blaxploitation era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Around 1970 you have just an explosion of African-American films and African-American movie stars,” Lev says. “’Shaft’ was 1971, for example, there’s a film called ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.’ The latter was by Melvin van Peebles, and it’s a pretty amazing independent film with a much more aggressive and sexually in-your-face attitude. That’s the kind of thing black actors just couldn’t do in the 1950’s.”

Lev has been a Towson professor since 1983 and in that time taught dozens of undergraduate and graduate courses in film studies. He is also the author of four books—his fifth, Twentieth Century Fox, the Zanuck-Skouras Years 1935-1965, was published earlier this year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named Lev a film scholar for his proposal of that book.


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