April 9, 2020
Black Like Me – US, 1964
There is a conversation to be had about just who the best messenger is when it comes to racism and the experiences of people of color. Many high school and college students still read Harriet Beacher Stowe’s 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; fewer, I suspect, read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written in 1845. Yet who is a more accurate narrator of slavery’s horrors, an abolitionist from Connecticut, a state that did not secede from the United States in the lead up to the Civil War, or a former slave with first-hand knowledge of the atrocities of slavery? It would seem like a no-brainer. On the other hand, you could also ask which book was likely to be read by the audience whose sentiments had to be moved in order for the struggle against slavery to be waged in earnest. In an ideal world, the quality of the book would be the only consideration, but who can reasonable argue that we are living in such a world?
Carl Lerner’s Black Like Me tells the story of author John Howard Griffin, who in 1959 changed his skin color through a combination of drugs, dye, and sunlight treatment. According to the film, he carried with him pills that prevented his skin from inconveniently reverting back to its earlier color, yet he does worry that the change will be permanent, and in an interesting scene, he asks his wife, “Would you still love me if I came back a Negro?” She assures him they would make it work, but the look on his face does not reveal absolute reassurance, foreshadowing a later scene in which his own biases rear their ugly head.
The film begins on a bus. Griffin (James Whitmore) is seated next to a window; the seat to his right is vacant. A woman is standing nearby, and, being the gentleman that he is, he offers it to her. Instead of being gracious, the woman sneers at him, insulted that he is even talking to her. She even makes a remark about how much “sassier” they are getting daily. In the same scene, the bus driver refuses to let him off to use the bathroom, reasoning that they take too long coming back. And we’re off.
Griffin’s tale has two trajectories. First, we see a series of interactions, each of which detail aspects of the experiences of African-Americans. These generally fall into two categories. In the first, we see Griffin’s interactions with African-Americans. These often involve extreme acts of kindness, such as a perfect stranger’s sincere attempts to find him shelter, and wonderful communal experiences, such as dancing at a club with good friends. These scenes are filled with memorable characters, such as a shoeshiner who gives Griffin tips to help him on his journey and a young woman who teaches him a new way to dance. There is also a fascinating young man awaiting a court decision after being arrested during a protest for voting rights.
Then there are Griffin’s communications with Southern whites, and most of these are horrifyingly revealing. Some of them, such as those in the film’s opening scene, are frustrating; others are absolutely shocking. In one, a man offers Griffin a ride, apparently just so that he can have the opportunity to put a black man in his place. He does this by demanding that Griffin finish his sentences with Sir. Oh, and he brags about sexually assaulting all of the black females who work on his farm as well. Another man asks him about his experiences with white women during World War II, and the longer the thought of a black soldier romancing a white European woman remains in his head, the more enraged he becomes. These scenes increase in intensity, culminating in one in which two young men verbally abuse and chase Griffin along practically abandoned streets.
The bluntness of these scenes is stunning, and it can be tempting to dismiss them as cinematic exaggerations done for dramatic effect, a criticism that was leveled at 2004’s Best Picture Oscar-Winner Crash. However, to do so here would be to ignore the behavior of people who believe they can act with impunity. Such perceived power can be give people a hideous boldness that wouldn’t exist without the apparent support of the police and local political leaders. These were indeed Griffin’s experiences, and seeing them in such rapid succession gives us a sense of the everyday reality for Southern blacks in the 1950’s, and we are called upon to act.
Of course, the film is first and foremost Griffin’s story, and Griffin's emotional reactions are meant to be ours. Does that weaken or date the film? Does it limit its potential appeal? Perhaps. I don’t believe viewers today will experience the same level of shock and despair that Griffin does. There’s also no doubt that the film’s explanation of Griffin’s blackness will conjure up memories of Soul Man or Bamboozled; or that some of Griffin’s words somewhat reinforce the notion that to understand the experience of the oppressed is to accept the use of violence as a means of achieving justice. However, I think these criticisms miss the point. Griffin’s negative encounters take an emotional toll on him, and in watching this, we are witnessing the cumulative effects of degradation and the threat of violence on the human psyche. In one scene, an elderly woman responds to one of Griffin’s angry rants by asking him, “But child, ain’t you used to it yet?” Let that sink in for a moment.
Promotional materials for the film featured Whitmore in the center, the words “I CHANGED THE COLOR OF MY SKIN… above him and …NOW I KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE BLACK1” scrolling from his chest to his knees. This is an overstatement, of course, for a year is hardly long enough to understand experiences that begin at birth and last a lifetime, yet, it’s a start. In the years that followed the publication of his story, Griffin gave over 800 lectures, often focusing on White members of the audience who appeared to doubt the accuracy of his words, and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1964, he was badly beaten and left to die by members of the Klu Klux Klan. In other words, to him, the fight for equality was hardly a fleeting interest, and we’re all better as a result. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars