Judge P.S. Colbert hates two things: Racial prejudice and seeing onions in his food.
"I changed the color of my skin…Now I know what it feels like to be Black!"
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and they may be on to something with Black Like Me, the film adaptation of John Howard Griffin's nonfiction book of the same name.
Facts of the Case
Journalist John Finley Horton (James Whitmore, Them!) proposes going undercover for a series of magazine articles on race relations in the deep south from the perspective of a black man. In order to do so, Horton bronzes his white skin with hours under a sunlamp and a previously untested drug regimen, administered over a period of weeks by a reluctant doctor (Sorrell Booke, The Dukes Of Hazzard). Suitably "darkened," Horton hits the road—often hitchhiking—and comes to learn some ugly truths about the state of "separate but equal" America.
The true story goes like this: Griffin returned from fighting in World War II (first, as a member of the French resistance, then as a U.S. Army Air Corpsman), profoundly moved by the experience. Above all else, two things left a lasting impression: He was utterly shaken by the state-sanctioned racism of Nazi Germany, and by the total blindness brought on by an explosion while he was stationed in Southeast Asia.
Returning to his Texas home after the war, Griffin became intensely aware of the homogeneous racism going on around him in the Jim Crow-era south, a point no doubt made clearer by his affliction—after all, what matter was skin tone when one couldn't distinguish it? When he miraculously regained his sight, Griffin made it his mission to eradicate racism in America by investigating it in the guise of a black man, and then exposing it through a series of articles first published in Sepia magazine, and finally in book form as Black Like Me, which appeared in 1961.
The screen version that emerged three years later (bowing two months before the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), does Griffin's work a great disservice by presenting a confusing mess of flashbacks and forward motion that often moves at a snail's pace. Strident, preachy and relentlessly breast-beating, Black Like Me, in cinematic form, fails from the top down.
First and foremost, there's just no getting around the fact that the casting of James Whitmore was a colossal mistake. A solid, occasionally brilliant character actor who earned two Oscar nominations (for Battleground in 1950, and Give 'Em Hell, Harry! in 1976), Whitmore regularly brought a grounded, "everyman" quality to his work. Unfortunately, this quality fails to translate here. Not only does he fail to resemble a black man in the least, Whitmore actually looks like a Minstrel performer here, and nothing makes the point stronger than having him playing against real African-American actors. It certainly isn't as if Whitmore doesn't work hard, either. Forgive me for saying, but if ever there were a case of the spirit being willing, but the flesh being weak, this is it.
Adding insult to injury, the film abounds with technical glitches of the numbskull variety. The opening scene features a busload of black and white passengers riding uncomfortably together until the driver pulls over for a 5-minute restroom stop. Several white passengers decamp, but when black passengers attempt to follow, the driver brusquely tells them to sit back down, because he doesn't have time to wait for them. Horton (who's already insulted a white, female straphanger by offering half of his seat to her) argues with the driver before angrily stomping off, at which point, the driver speeds away—unwittingly leaving the white passengers behind!
Even stranger is a scene that I guess is supposed to imply an epiphany. Horton emerges from a shower and, encountering his black visage in a small mirror over the bathroom sink, reacts with open-mouthed shock. He then moves over to a much larger vanity mirror, and in the second mirror, he registers even greater alarm, literally gasping. Did he think he was looking at somebody else's reflection in that first mirror?! This ludicrous sequence is elevated to the level of sheer camp with shrieking (musical) strings, and worst of all, the effect of "shock" is entirely blunted, as this scene comes 27 minutes into the film, which has featured Horton as a black man from the very beginning!
Where exactly Horton is going and where he's staying at any particular time is often unclear (many transitions are alluded to with stock footage of the white dividing lines of road rolling past), and perhaps beside the point of a screenplay (co-written by director Carl Lerner and his wife Gerda) seemingly set up to make each scene a teachable moment, usually in the form of a character-to-character lecture.
The film's most successful scene almost seems to happen by accident. Horton thumbs a ride with a white man (David Huddleston, The Big Lebowski) so friendly and seemingly colorblind that Horton's suspicions are raised, making him so defensive that at one point the man asks him, quite reasonably, "What are you fighting me for?"
Seemingly innocuous, the short ride shared by the two men bristles with tension as Horton waits for the other shoe to drop from this seemingly harmless fellow (Huddleston, who'd go on to a storied career, mostly playing rednecks, is superb playing against type) who seems too good to be true, and puts a wrinkle in the notion that the racial problems that plague America could be solved if only white people would stop hating and mistreating their colored brothers and sisters. That this powerful message comes across without the pointed, rap-on-the-knuckles moralizing that plagues most of Black Like Me is a testament to what might have been if the filmmakers had trusted themselves to get off their high horses and actually spend some time treading the ground they were covering.
Nearly as good is another traveling encounter, albeit one that turns sinister within the space of two sentences. A million miles away from his most famous role as kindly and sage Grandpa Walton (on The Waltons), Will Geer's villainous turn as a black hitchhiker's worst nightmare is spot on and nearly burns a hole in the screen. Unfortunately, his efforts are let down again by the filmmakers, who insist on a degree of politeness that suggests any rhetorical questions about "You know what we do to people like you?" are nothing more than talk.
To be fair, there are things to recommend, including some wonderful black-and-white photography by Henry Mueller and Victor Lukens, an evocative, jazz-tinged score by Meyer Kupferman, and some terrific supporting performances from African-American co-stars Roscoe Lee Browne (The Cowboys), Thelma Oliver (The Pawnbroker), Eva Jessye (Slaves), and Richard Ward (The Jerk).
Making a case for Black Like Me as a lost cinematic milestone, VSC has laid on a deluxe treatment for this two-disc set with a clean and dynamic transfer, available in both original full-screen and in widescreen (which looks surprisingly fantastic) and equally crisp audio, also in two options: 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound. There are no subtitles, but this set provided one of the rare instances where I wasn't forced to choose between backing up or giving up on missed dialogue, due to my battle-scarred ears.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two words: Bonus Features. The first disc (which contains the feature) has four spots billed as "theatrical trailers" (though their brevity suggests that they're actually TV ads). The spots are a bit timeworn, but not so beat up that it detracts, and each one is different from the others—genuine time-capsule stuff. Also included is a set of vintage "lobby cards" to click through, and they look great.
Disc Two, however, is where the real treasure lies. "Uncommon Vision: The Life And Times Of John Howard Griffin" is an hour of sheer fascination, telling the story of Mr. Griffin's life through a combination of his own words and photographic images, with succinct blanks—filling by historian Robert Bonazzi and several of Griffin's associates. Made in 2010 by acclaimed documentarian Morgan Atkinson (Soul Searching: The Journey Of Thomas Merton), "Uncommon Vision" is clearly a labor of love, and a waterproof argument for Griffin's canonization. No kidding.
Finally, there's a booklet with ten pages excerpted from Bonazzi's Reluctant Activist: The Authorized Biography of John Howard Griffin, accompanied by photos from the film and a glorious color reproduction of the original movie poster on the back. Simply put, these "extras" not only cancel out the film's weaknesses, they'd stand as an easily recommended DVD set all on their own.
A monumentally flawed cinematic translation of a groundbreaking book, Black Like Me finally rises from the tombs. As it stands, the film is ideally suited for serious film historians and unabashed collectors of kitsch alike. All others are advised to rent, and leaving the feature aside, I'd recommend the "Uncommon Vision" bonus feature to anyone.
Any crime committed was done purely out of passion. Not guilty, with a warning.
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