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As socially conscious filmmaking moved into the 1960s, it became marginalized more than ever. Getting low-budget B&W pictures into theaters was an even tougher sell, and the watered-down liberal messages in TV meant that only a specialized audience went for films about social justice or race equality. The average person thinks that a successful liberal consciousness picture is the overly insistent The Defiant Ones or the feel-good Lilies of the Field or the glamorous Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Ironically, those glamorous & unthreatening Sidney Poitier pictures probably did more to convince nervous whitebread America accept the idea that blacks weren't a scary "other", than all the heartfelt confrontational movies put together. The nature of film distribution required that movies court a white audience. Sidney won over his audiences by playing characters of obvious virtue and integrity. Good actors like James Edwards and Brock Peters got plenty of bit parts and some that allowed them to express pride in their color, but Hollywood in general reacted to the Civil Rights advances with a dose of defensive tokenism.
The wholly independent Black Like Me is one of the less compromised filmic attacks on racial prejudice. It has received mixed reviews ever since Continental Pictures managed a fairly wide release for it in 1964. I remember its rather daring TV, broadcast out of Los Angeles. As with the other racial equality picture One Potato, Two Potato, most of us caught it a few years later syndicated on TV. I don't ever recall Roger Corman's equally incendiary The Intruder playing anywhere, however.
Black Like Me has a unique background. It's from a 1961 book by Texan John Howard Griffin, a liberal journalist obsessed with race prejudice, who talked a magazine (Sepia) into bankrolling a daring experiment. Using drugs, dye and sunlamp treatments, Griffin darkened his skin and traveled alone through the South to document his subjective experience. The mission was to find out what it is like to be treated like a black man in Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states. The film was directed and co-written by Carl Lerner, a famed editor of New York-based socially conscious independent pictures (On the Bowery) and several classics by directors like Fielder Cook, Sidney Lumet and Jack Garfein: Patterns, 12 Angry Men, Middle of the Night, The Fugitive Kind, Something Wild.
The story begins with journalist "John Finley Horton" (James Whitmore) already embarked on his journey. A white woman insults him for speaking to her on a bus, and the bus driver refuses to let him leave his seat at a rest stop. Arriving in a new town, a couple of local blacks take him in, to protect him from roving white thugs: there's been some 'trouble' lately. He meets a garrulous, troubled ex-convict (Roscoe Lee Browne) at a café and he hitches rides with several white men that provoke him with offensive questions. One man wants to know if he's slept with white women, or if he likes them. Another (Will Geer) asserts that white men can have sex with all the black women they want because their blood will 'improve' the black race. A well-meaning but awkward white sociologist becomes so personal with his questions about black sexuality that Horton attacks him.
In flashbacks we learn that publisher Eli Carr (Clifton James) tried to talk Horton out of his reckless journey, and that his wife Lucy (Lenka Peterson) is terrified by what might happen to him. He's shown the ropes of how to "be black" by Burt Wilson (Richard Ward), a friendly shoeshine man. A black man, Horton learns, must make serious plans to know where he can use the restroom during the day. Wherever he goes, white people go out of their way to inconvenience & insult him, and give him "the hate stare".
Horton is turned down for decent jobs by white men that openly state that they want to keep the black man in his place. He's chased by street thugs that back down only when he runs into an alley and challenges them to dare come in. Horton eventually reveals what he is doing to trusted associates. Liberal friends (Robert Gerringer & Mary Saunders) worry for his family's safety once the truth comes out. A priest helps him deal with his mounting anger. But a black father and his activist son Thomas (P.J. Sidney and Al Freeman, Jr.) deliver withering criticism. John readily admits that his six weeks as a black can't give him the real experience, because he knows he won't stay black. Thomas angrily states that Horton's journey is a stunt -- that nothing will change until white men are willing to become martyrs for racial equality.
The big hurdle for most viewers of Black Like Me is seeing white actor James Whitmore in blackface, passing as a black man. Most of the critical nay votes on the movie point to this problem, although photos of the real John Howard Griffin don't seem any more convincing than Whitmore. The fact is that movies shape our images of what people are supposed to look like -- there are plenty of dark black men with narrow noses and lips, in fact, plenty of people of all races that can 'pass' for other races or ethnicities. In this film, the familiarity some viewers have with James Whitmore can break the deal. Godfrey Cambridge in the comedy Watermelon Man seems to comment on this 'effect', when he dons whiteface makeup to portray being transformed into a white man. Because we know Cambridge's looks so well, we conclude that nobody could ever get away with such a deception. John Howard Griffin's experience says otherwise. 1
The most helpful black man that Horton meets is Burt Wilson, the bootblack. Wilson gives him practical advice and teaches him how to shine shoes. Horton also witnesses a scene that for Wilson is a commonplace occurrence: a "friendly" white man asks Wilson to direct him to a black woman for sex. If Wilson complies, he's a good n_____. When Wilson resists, he's considered a troublemaker. The lesson: "White folks are plenty democratic when it comes to sin." Black Like Me is the first 'race' picture I've seen that identifies the core of white racism as a sexual fear.
We're made aware from the start in Black Like Me that the story is true. "Horton" experiences personally what he's already witnessed many times. He knows that the truth is that parts of America operate as racist terror-states, with their black citizens kept in a state of constant humiliation and fear of violence. Yet he believes that people are basically good and that whites may listen to the truth if it comes from a white man. What Horton gets for his effort is grief from all sides. He finds that the worst white racists are near psychopaths obsessed with blacks having sex. More progressive types are concerned for Horton's safety. The black activist thinks that Horton is a useless fool for believing that he can understand what it is like to be black, for real, forever.
Black Like Me sticks close to the real Griffin's experience, and deviates only to give Horton a few dramatic reactions, externalizing the growing anger he feels at the injustice and humiliations he's supposed to swallow every day as a black man. Horton angrily cuts short a hitchhike and becomes violent with the foolish intellectual. Even with its 'iffy' aspects, almost fifty years later, the movie will be an eye-opener and a revelation to viewers that care about social justice.
Black Like Me is packed with notable actors in early stages of their careers. Black actor Stanley Brock is instantly recognizable even if his names is not familiar. Roscoe Lee Browne had been in Shirley Clarke's The Connection and a couple of TV shows. 'Youngster' Al Freeman Jr. had TV credits going back to 1958, and plays the student activist at 31 years of age. Stage actress Thelma Oliver won a notable part in the same year's The Pawnbroker. And this was the first film for D'Urville Martin, who found plenty of work on TV, blaxploitation films and class items like Rosemary's Baby.
Director Carl Lerner's blocking of action becomes awkward only once or twice in the entire movie. He concentrates on the performances but Black Like Me never seems claustrophobic. Instead of stylizing the picture, he keeps his angles naturalistic. This makes two or three shots of Horton breaking mirrors, etc., all the more dramatic. He's also keen on visual detail. Shots of the painted roadway lines rushing by alternate black, white, black, seemingly expressing the equality of skin color.
We were all impressed when The Help of a couple of years ago and its portrait of the veritable state of terror imposed on blacks in the South, even during the liberal '60s. Lerner's film is remarkable because it fought the fight and took the risks back then, when all this was happening and the only ones trying to do anything about it were black activists with unofficial prices on their heads. That's the mark of a socially committed filmmaker.
The adventurous and committed Anglo cast includes Robert Gerringer and blacklistee Will Geer. Actor Matt Clark made his first film appearance here, as a thug taunting Horton on the street. Clifton James is instantly recognizable as the redneck sheriff in Live and Let Die and Superman II, yet he's a dedicated liberal New York veteran of shows like The Last Mile, Something Wild and David and Lisa. James Whitmore's commitment to the role is complete. Often associated with military films, Whitmore was attracted to offbeat and humanist subjects from the beginning of his studio career, such as the bizarre religious film The Next Voice You Hear... His choices as an independent are telling... the burned man in Face of Fire, the liberal TV show The Twilight Zone and as a prosecuting ourangutan in Planet of the Apes.
VSP's DVD of Black Like Me is encoded two ways, in its theatrical widescreen aspect ratio and in a full frame, open matte version that the menus incorrectly call the 'original' version. The transfer is immaculate, as the film elements appear to be in excellent condition. The film was shot completely on location, and uses on-site live sound.
John Howard Griffin biographer Robert Bonazzi contributes an excerpt for a printed text insert, and a string of TV spots (misidentified as trailers) shows the entire ad campaign, the one that seemed frightening to Savant at 12 years old.
A bonus DVD disc contains the worthwhile documentary Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin. A remarkably busy life it is indeed. Stifled by the educational opportunities in Fort Worth, Texas, Griffin went to school in France and stayed to join the French Underground, helping refugee Jews escape to America. Then, in the Marine Corps., he was bombed while in a forward position in the South Pacific and went blind. A full ten years later, Griffin's eyesight came back without warning. His journalistic career eventually led to the Black Like Me stunt, the book and the movie. As one might expect, his family received such hate threats that he felt it was wise to move to Mexico for almost a year. He continued to tour with lectures about what he had learned, gaining the respect of activists in the Civil Rights movement. The docu makes the case that Griffin was a happy and fulfilled man, even though his choice of personal commitments made supporting his family difficult.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Like Me rates:
1. One of the legitimate gripes about some of the earlier (late '40s) films with 'race' themes is the use of white actors in black roles. The movies needed stars but there were no black stars -- and the studios really didn't want to create any. Pinky is a pointed offender, even though its heart is definitely in the right place. Still the most compelling movie about "passing" is the now-obscure but fascinating Lost Boundaries.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.