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Those Civil Rights Glasses

Around 20 years ago - when I was a young man in my early 20s, and an avid film-goer - a curious cultural event happened - Sixties horn-rimmed glasses became cool.  A mini-genre emerged, roughly between 1988 and 1992, which, in this five year period, created some of the best American films - The Civil Rights movie.  Perhaps it starts with classic redneck vs. G-man Mississippi Burning, which features a startlingly young Willem Defoe as a buttoned-up Kennedy-boy FBI man and a brilliantly simmering Gene Hackman, in perhaps his finest role other than the French Connection films.

Defoe wears the specs here.  Then came 1991's masterwork, JFK, Oliver Stone's own conspiracy-theory Citizen Kane/Rashomon, which retells the Kennedy assassination and general 60s paranoia, from the perspective of Kevin Costner (never better), as Jim Garrison.
Finally, Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington, appeared in 1992, and here, Spike Lee's great biopic does not spare us the eyewear, either - those same glasses appear.  Indeed, in some circles, these are known as Malcolm X glasses.  Indeed, so cool were those glasses, that in 1993, Michael Douglas appeared with them on in Falling Down - as if to signify his bottled-up killer's debt to both the lost dignity of Kennedy-era America, and his revolutionary focus.  Again, 1992's Thunderheart borrowed the earnest FBI man motif, but set it in the 1970s, as another civil rights issue developed on the reservations; this time, great playwright Sam Shepard played the older man, and both wear sunglasses, but with a notably funky look.

Notably, characters wearing Malcolm X glasses are, to misquote Yeats, filled with passionate intensity, but don't lack conviction - they marry the action man with the man of thought - as the man under the floorboards thought was impossible.  Watching Hackman take on Brad Dourif in the cornpone barber's chair, the other night, I recalled how thrilling such films are, where a clear moral evil (Southern bigotry) collides with a clear moral good (government-protected civil rights) - a Democrat's version of the roughneck 80s actioners that were more Reagan-era in their lone wolf brutality.  Now, when the Tea Party again questions the role of "big government" we need to be reminded of the value of men in glasses.

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