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Black Like Me (1964) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

horton white film racism

Principal social theme: racism/civil rights

Walter Reade/Sterling. No MPAA rating. Featuring: James Whitmore, Sorrell Booke, Roscoe Lee Browne, Al Freeman Jr., Will Geer, Robert Gerringer, Clifton James, John Marriott, Thelma Oliver, Lenka Petersen, P. J. Sidney, Alan Bergmann, Stanley Brock, Heywood Hale Broun, Sarah Cunningham, David Huddleston, Eva Jessye, D’Urville Martin, Walter Mason, Richard Ward, Dan Priest, Raymond St. Jacques, Millie Allen; Written by Gerda Lerner and Carl Lerner based on the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Cinematography by Victor Lukens and Henry Mueller II. Edited by Lora Hays. Music by Meyer Kupferman. Produced by Julius Tannenbaum. Directed by Carl Lerner. B&W. 107 minutes.

Overview

In 1959, Texas author John Howard Griffin wrote a compelling series of magazine articles about his travels through the Deep South after darkening his skin by chemical treatment to experience first hand the everyday conditions encountered by Black Americans. In 1961, the articles were expanded into a book, Black Like Me , which drew critical attention and became very influential. The film Black Like Me dramatized the book in a hard-edged, gritty style reminiscent of film noir. Although the screenplay fictionalized the story (for instance, John Howard Griffin was changed to John Finley Horton), the events are based entirely on fact. Although the picture had only spotty distribution in the South, it was recognized as one of the most striking film treatments of the topic of racism by the film industry.

Synopsis

Since Negro was the preferred term for African Americans at the time of this film’s setting, the term will be used in the synopsis. The credits appear in close-ups beside fragments of a larger design. It only becomes apparent that this is the Confederate flag before the final credit, the director’s name, Carl Lerner. The first image in the film proper is a traveling shot of the white line that divides the lanes of a highway. This image recurs throughout the film, and by the picture’s end, it is clear that it is meant to represent the color line in America. The scene shifts to the interior of a crowded bus. James Whitmore, skin darkened so that he appears to be a Negro, offers his seat to a middle-aged white woman, who angrily turns down his gesture as if it were an affront. At a rest stop, the driver tells Horton to stay on the bus. Instead, he storms off the bus and starts to hitchhike down the road. When he reaches the next town, he approaches a Negro and asks about finding a room. The man warns him that the town is very inhospitable to black people and arranges for Horton to board at a private home. After settling into his room, Horton watches from the window as a gang of white hot-rodders start to harass Negroes as they walk down the street. He stares at his black face in the mirror as a flashback shows Whitmore as a white Horton, approaching his friend, a wealthy magazine publisher, as they relax by the side of a swimming pool. The publisher is fascinated by Horton’s daring idea, to write in diary fashion his experiences as he passes for a Negro in the Deep South. The publisher warns Horton that his plan could be very dangerous if he falls into the clutches of any racists who penetrate his disguise. Horton explains that his skin will be darkened chemically. From this point on, the picture becomes episodic, jumping around between the white Horton’s preparations for this assignment and the Negro Horton’s encounters with numerous individuals. Most of the Negroes he meets are reserved when encountering white people but open and friendly when dealing with members of their own race. Most of the whites encountered by Horton are hostile, abusive, or insulting. A series of white drivers give Horton a lift, but they all seem obsessed with talking about sex and carnal relations between the races. Horton begins to develop an angry veneer as he experiences racism in many forms. He becomes abrupt with one white driver who tries to chat with him until Horton finally realizes that the man is only trying to be pleasant. Later he encounters a bigoted young white student writing a thesis, and Horton becomes so angry he almost chokes the youth to death. A devout Catholic, Horton has a spiritual crisis and turns to a local priest and reveals that he is passing as a Negro. The priest counsels him, suggesting that his problem stems from his “pride of self.” When Horton’s articles start to appear, he moves in with a gentle, elderly man whose son has become active in the civil rights movement. He finally shows them one of the articles. They are at first stunned and suspicious as Horton tries to explain his motives and his sincere wish for better race relations. Their discussion is spirited and provides the dramatic climax of the picture. Horton decides to conclude his travels and return home to his wife and children, knowing his skin will return to normal when he discontinues taking the drug. He symbolically crosses the white line in the road as the screen turns to black. The film concludes without any end credits.

Critique

Black Like Me is well intentioned, sensational, and disturbing. The stark cinematography, crisp editing, abrasive atonal music, and dramatic rundown location footage are genuinely remarkable. Griffin’s original concept is audacious, and the film accurately depicts many of the events of the book. Only those viewers who read the book, however, can judge if the screenwriters selected the most representative incidents to portray. The most vivid characters in the film include Roscoe Lee Browne as Christopher, a smooth-talking former convict, Will Geer as the nasty, old-school racist, and Richard Ward as Burt Wilson, the shoeshine parlor owner who helps Whitmore to adopt the proper manner as a black man in the Deep South. The impact of the picture rises or falls with the audience’s acceptance of Whitmore as a black man; his blue eyes and physical features work against full believability. Another weakness is Whitmore’s speaking style, which remains unchanged throughout the film. Whenever he opens his mouth, he sounds like a professor. Yet his conviction and dedication to the role seem total. Several critics have commented that his angry demeanor in the second half of the film is unrealistic, and there is some truth to this. Griffin’s anger was internal in the book, but Whitmore’s Horton has to express it more externally. The picture has a few weak points. The structure of the story makes everything seem vague, and we are never told what state Horton is in or in which direction he is going. Although set in 1959, the music and popular dance styles are of the mid-1960s. The crude sexual emphasis in the hitchhiking sequences is somewhat overdone and becomes unintentionally funny, but the screenplay saves the sequence with Horton’s reaction when a decent man gives him a lift, only wanting to show off the photos of his kids. Whitmore is unconvincing and awkward in his scenes with Mrs. Horton, who disapproves of her husband’s endeavors. The scene in which Horton double dates with a black girl, however, is touching and well handled. Several moments of the picture are unforgettable, such as when two thugs pursue Horton through the dark streets and a white motorist refuses to help him. The quiet moments can be just as effective, such as when Horton is walking on the beach and pauses to talk with a young white girl building a sand castle. The child is without a shred of racism, but her mother is frantic when she notices Horton and her daughter together. Another memorable moment is at the bus station, where an elderly female ticket-seller refuses to change Whitmore’s twenty-dollar bill and stares at him with pure hatred. Finally, the scene in which some local white thugs stalk Horton and he challenges them to follow him into an alley is one of the most chilling and dramatic scenes in any film from the era. Students might find Black Like Me very useful as a snapshot of a point in time, and explore how things have changed in the years since the setting of the movie. It could be used in many ways by students wishing to gain an understanding of the roots of the civil rights movement and of the many levels of discrimination faced by black citizens in the American South in the late 1950s. The film could be viewed on different levels, appealing to both a white and black audience and studied for the different gradations of racism. It could even be useful to consider subtle points, such as language. Are phrases such as “you people” actually code words for racism? How does the personality of Horton affect his overall experience? This film can provide a wealth of material for discussion, including the ways in which society has or has not changed. Ironically, the next time a white character tried to become a black was in Soul Man (1986), in which a white student passed for black to gain an unclaimed minority scholarship at a university. Despite its occasional flaws, Black Like Me remains a unique milestone in examining the issue of racism in America.

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