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Four new major movies are all based on real events, ranging from an episode in the history of Australian Aborigines’ Stolen Generation, through a decade in the life of world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, to a bitter battle in Somalia’s civil war in 1993, and the tragedy of Patrice Lumumba’s assasination in the newly independent Congo of 1960. They all demonstrate what little progress we have made as a species towards tolerance, argues Andrew L. Urban.

I caught a part of past President Bill Clinton’s speech the other day on a cable channel, where he was reminding us that so many of the assassinations and killings throughout history have been carried out not by opponents but followers. This is a sobering reminder of our capacity to hate neighbours with greater passion sometimes than strangers far away. Terrorists notwithstanding. The hatred-fuelled killings between Irish Catholics and Protestants, the Middle East and the tribal slayings in Africa, the Bosnian ethnic war and the competing warlords of Somalia are some examples.

But the sad fact is that this notion does not address the other forms of intolerance that continue to blight our history, from racial conflicts to religious, from the nationalistic to the jingoistic.

In the four films that we review this week, some human beings behave with nobility while others behave with a primitive, ignorant and intolerant mindset that seems like a flashback to the barbaric nomads of centuries ago – and worse. The films vary greatly in their subject matter, from the ill-fated social politics of Australia to the civil wars of Somalia and Congo, to the bigotry of the white Americans of two generations ago. And nothing has changed since then in many ways, in all cases.

Cinema – like other forms of art and entertainment – has a legitimate role in exploring these areas of the human condition. But inevitably, films will be incomplete in their recording of history, for they each represent one voice telling the story. We should not deny their value on that ground. These films deserve attention as messengers of potential change, even if they are somehow incomplete.

"maybe there is hope for the human race"

One former security officer, a white Afrikaaner, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa told an interviewer outside the hearing how his life changed dramatically after seeing Mississippi Burning, Alan Parker’s film about the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Mississippi. “It made me suddenly realise our job was to protect . . .not to kill.”

If a hardened cop can respond to a movie like that, maybe there is hope for the human race.

Published February 21, 2002

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