Diversity Film Series: ‘Germ of Idea,’ Bias Incident Lead to Creative Venue for Discussion
August 2, 2013   //   By:   //   Arts & Culture, Arts and Culture, Features

HARLANWhen a classic film explores subjects that were controversial when the movie was written 50 years ago, and those issues still resonate today, audiences are challenged to think about the messages and, hopefully, they also are moved to action.

This is the philosophy Jean-Paul Benowitz envisioned while creating the Elizabethtown College Diversity Film Series in February 2011. It was a “germ of an idea,” sparked by a bias-related incident, that prompted students to look for a venue for conversation and debate.

“I thought we could offer that venue but in the context of film,” said Benowitz, director of Student Transition Programs, assistant director of Academic Advising and the driving force behind the unique film series shown each semester.

Film, he said, makes the subjects more touchable, places them in a safely distant environment so discussion doesn’t become personal.

The Diversity Film Series are close-captioned classic films addressing race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic stratification, culture and politics. Each was the first to deal with the particular subject or was the best for its time. Though dated, the films are still quite relevant.

This semester’s “The Boys in the Band,” for instance, was the first motion picture to realistically depict urban homosexual males. Based on a 1968 off-Broadway play and employing the production’s same cast, the film explores gay stereotypes. Just months before the movie was filmed the “gay liberation movement” was inadvertently launched when patrons of a gay bar in New York resisted arrest.

Showings of each film purposefully coincide with monthly diversity celebrations. Among others, “Pow Wow Highway,” acknowledges National American Indian Heritage Month in November; “Do the Right Thing,” coincides with Black History Month; and “Hairspray,” showing next May, gives an early nod to June’s Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

Fletcher McClellan, Dean of Faculty and professor of political science, took up the lead on the project after Benowitz presented the idea.

“[McClellan] found the funding and we came up with a list of films,” Benowitz said. The titles were culled from various lists featuring movies that impacted or helped to change culture.

Only a few are documentaries.

Instead, they are vehicles for learning and discussion wrapped in entertainment. After each film, faculty members, representing at least two disciplines and who have a passion for film and for promoting diversity, lead audience members in conversation.

“It’s a new way for the faculty to connect with the students and for the College to connect to the community,” said Benowitz, adding that the discussions aren’t just talks about film; they are learning moments and opportunities to challenge the audience to do something.

McClellan, who has volunteered several times throughout the series to lead discussions, said he is looking forward to being the discussion facilitator for the 25th anniversary showing of “Do the Right Thing” this spring.

“It was and remains a landmark film in its depiction of race relations, still timely when you think about the Trayvon Martin case,” he said. “It is also a fabulous piece of filmmaking.”

Kian Spady, an Elizabethtown College senior, also connected the series to that current news event. “The recent (George) Zimmerman case really had some similarities to ‘12 Angry Men’,” he said of the recent fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the murder trial of the security guard who shot him.

In addition, as an African American who attended a predominantly white private high school, Spady said he can relate to some of the messages in the films. At school, “people asked me ‘how did you get in here; what did you do to get in’,” he said, adding that he often felt “set apart.”

Originally, Spady expected films from the 1950s and 1960s to be boring, especially the black-and-white films. He did not look forward to going, but as a member of the Elizabethtown College Momentum program’s Kinesis leaders group, which mentors first-year students, he was required to attend the films. He now admits that he is glad he went.

“If I wasn’t required, I would go anyway.” — Kian Spady ’14

“If I wasn’t required, I would go anyway,” he said. “ ‘12 Angry Men’ (a 1957 film shown last fall) was actually really exciting, and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (a 1955 film shown this past spring) was suspenseful. It drew me in.” Spady, a fine arts and religious studies major, added that the messages in the films stuck with him.

He has attended almost all of the diversity films shown since 2011. The conversations after the films, he said, give ideas of how to apply what is learned to everyday life.

“The discussions,” he said, “are similar to the town hall meetings” that took place this spring at the College following campus bias incidences. The difference is that the discussions often are intergenerational with community input.

“The things that impress me,” said film series founder Benowitz, “are the reflective papers written by some of the students after viewing the films. … They are amazed at the cinematography and acting. They also are amazed that the film industry took up these subjects at the time they were filmed.”

Diversity Film Series schedule

7 p.m. in Gibble Auditorium
Contact: Jean Paul Benowitz, Academic Advising, at 717-361-1110 or benowitzj@etown.edu

Monday, September 16
“Harlan County USA”
This 1976 Oscar-winning documentary explores the 1973 Brookside mine strike in Harlan County, Ky., and the historical plight of the miners. Discussant: Dr. Robert Wheelersburg, College Professor of International Studies.

Monday, October 21
“The Boys in the Band”
The landmark 1970s film is based on the 1968 off-Broadway play about a birthday party attended by a group of gay men. Starring the play’s original cast, it made theatrical history as the first play and film to honestly deal with gay urban life. Discussants: Dr. Peggy McFarland, professor of social work; Dr. Andy Dunlap, assistant professor of social work.

Monday, November 11
“Powwow Highway”
Brinser Lecture Room, Steinman Center
This 1989 comedy-drama road trip movie follows a quick-tempered activist and his friend who, in the ‘war pony,’ a beat-up ’64 Buick, are headed to Santa Fe, N.M., to bail out a Cheyenne woman named Bonnie who was arrested on a trumped-up drug charge. Discussant: Diane Elliott, director of Diversity; Fletcher McClellan, Dean of Faculty.

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.

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