The 1960s. Watts. The section of our long overlooked and underprivileged South Central Los Angeles community that, just a few years prior, blazed itself into the national TV and newspaper headlines with days of a racial uprising called The Watts Riots. I was in the college prep program at a Catholic all boys school called Verbum Dei High School. Not a large school. But it was a good school, one that still stands today. Verbum Dei didn't have the big budget for fine arts that schools in the white neighborhoods at that time had. So, our faculty took advantage of group rate tickets to see prestigious films in the Hollywood area as weekday field trips. This was fine by me. My fascination with films was in full bloom by the time I was 8. The films we saw were always big screen adaptations of classic works we studied in English Lit. class -- ROMEO AND JULIET, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. There was another film that we students got on the bus to go see. The book was not on our required reading list but it was in our school library. This foreign film was at least seven hours long. In its theatrical release, you had to buy a ticket to see the first half one week and then return the following week to see the second half. I was glued to every single minute of the film. I have since seen it more than once. The movie is the 1960s epic Russian production of Tolstoy's WAR AND PEACE. It hit the U.S. in 1968. I'm so glad it did.
Especially after I saw WAR AND PEACE, I came to the realization that film journalism in print and on TV inaccurate images of what the black community liked and didn't like. The press releases reported that, just like Hollywood's GONE WITH THE WIND Scarlett O'Hara casting, there was a search of well over a year for the right actress to play Natasha. The film opened to lots of entertainment news attention and did quite well with moviegoers. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1968.
Only one guy in the class did not return for last half. Gary broke his ankle in football practice and his mom kept him home. The rest of us were eager to see the rest of the story. Some of my classmates got off that bus from Watts sporting Afros the size of radar dishes. The things is -- if a local TV news crew had been on Hollywood Blvd to ask pedestrians if they'd seen this new and exceptionally long WAR AND PEACE, the reporter probably would not have approached a bunch of black and Chicano teen males, some of whom looked like Colin Kaepernick with Afro fully blown. But the reporter could have. We would've had plenty to say.
In the 1990s,while I was living and working in New York City, I found a DVD of WAR AND PEACE in my local video store. I rented it a couple of times. I had a great time watching it, but the print left something to be desired.
Some of the best news I read online last week is that Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE has been digitally restored and this extraordinary epic will be onscreen at New York City's Film Society Lincoln Center. It will play February 15 to 21. For more info, click onto this link: www.filmlinc.org. Also, give thanks to Janus Films and you can click onto its link here: www.janusfilms.com.
I would love to see WAR AND PEACE on the big screen again in mint condition.
To show you where America was culturally, WAR AND PEACE aired in prime time on ABC over four nights in 1972. Guess what? The ratings were good. That programming would not happen today. Tolstoy would be kicked to the curb in a heartbeat to make room for THE BACHELOR.
Never underestimate the power of the fine arts. They can entertain, enlighten, change the images you have of people -- and they can be a bridge to other works of art. By the way, if you'd like to see the high school in South Central L.A. that I attended, just click onto this link: www.VerbumDei.us.
See classic films. Use and support your local libraries. Thanks for your attention.
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