Last night at 9:00, I turned on HBO to watch Boycott, the new movie about the birth of the civil rights movement. Instead, they were still showing a boxing match. Apparently the network hadn't anticipated Roy Jones taking as many as ten rounds to finish off Derrick Harper.
I didn't watch it. I don't watch boxing any more. And I considered the irony of two black mean beating each other up preempting a film about Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who showed the world how much nonviolent protest could accomplish. I was looking for the quiet yet fiery dignity of Rosa Parks, and I found pointless brutality for the entertainment of a bloodthirsty mob.
It's not that I don't recognize the skill required of a boxer. In the past I've watched these fights with as much enthusiasm as anyone. But I think the pounding wore me down. And I saw one of my cultural heroes, Muhammad Ali, reduced to a quivering, silent shell of his proud, articulate younger self. That was too much for me.
So for twenty minutes or so I flipped through 200 channels. I saw a lot more gratuitous pandering than I did quality entertainment. Must be something about a Saturday night. It made me wonder who (besides me) stays home and watches this stuff, but then I remembered that most of it was originally made for people who go out on Saturday night. It's just that instead of being overwhelmed by the violence on the big screen, I get to live with it in the intimacy of my home.
Boycott was everything I hoped it would be. It's imaginatively directed by Clark Johnson, with documentary-style footage intercut with the sensitive portrayal of the heroes of the Montgomery movement. We can't be reminded too often of what it took to make a dent in segregation and oppression. We don't live in a perfect world, not by a long way, but we live in a better one because of these people.
The film doesn't idealize them. King is a reluctant spokesman for the boycott, at first. There's dissension and backbiting among the leaders. But all of those involved, from King down to the average citizens, let the greater good prevail over personal interests. They were fighting for their own rights, yes, but they were also fighting for better lives for their children.
The world owes these people more than it could ever repay, but at least a film like this will help us to remember. They were flawed, and the result of their efforts was imperfect, but they are the role models we need in an age of arrogant self-interest and drifting values.