Oh Joy! Oh Rapture! Believe it or not, this is one of those truly weird pictures that, from time to time, I wished would come out on DVD. And now finally, as if miracles will never cease, it will very soon.
I’m taking about the bizzaro 1964 independently made feature Black Like Me starring Hollywood veteran supporting actor James Whitmore with Roscoe Lee Brown and Al Freeman Jr. among others. And it’s coming out for the first time, fully remastered, on DVD and VOD on Dec. 11 through Video Services Corp (VSC).
It’s one of those classic “what-the-hell-were-they-thinking?” movies which are like car wrecks complete with mutilated bodies. You want to turn away, but you can’t help yourself to look.
The film was based on the best selling 1961 non-fiction book with crusading liberal journalist John Howard Griffin. Born in Texas, he had seen the pain and excruciating toll of racism and segregation all his life and was affected by it.
So in 1959, through the use of chemicals, skin dyes and, of course, a sun lamp, he darkened his skin and traveled throughout the Deep South, chronicling his painful and degrading experiences posing as a black man. What he saw and encountered, he turned into his book, Black Like Me.
When the film was made a few years later, co-written and directed by Carl Lerner, though it had its defenders, it was mainly considered an embarrassment in its simplistic tone and approach, and the fact the Whitmore, doing his Al Jolson impersonation, is totally unconvincing, posing as a black man.
And you have to accept the fact that everyone in the film, both black and white, totally believe that he’s a black man, when he’s so obviously a white guy in blackface. You keep expecting Whitmore at any moment to start singing “Mammy“.
Though, in fairness, I should add that the real Griffin made up as a black guy (see HERE) wasn’t any more convincing than Whitmore is in the film. That he actually fooled people, makes one wonder if people are kind of slow to catch on down South.
And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of black minstrelsy, which makes the movie become more of an unintended farce than a serious examination of the psychological toll of racism. And keep in mind that no matter what Whitmore goes through in the film, it’s mitigated by the fact that he’s still a white man.
True, he does suffer indignities, but he can always “wipe that stuff off” and things are right again for him. As for real black people, well that’s their problem.
Though the film had regular screenings on local TV stations around the country, which is when I first saw it eons ago, it didn’t become the oddball cult classic that it should have been. By the mid-1970s, sightings of the film were every few and far between.
Anyway, it’s a doozy of a film and never less than fascinating, despite numerous faults, and you owe to yourself to see it once, if only just for curiosity’s sake.
Here’s a film clip from the movie with Whitmore and the gravelly-voiced Richard Ward, who later went on to play the mobster who has Anthony Quinn on the take, in Across 110th Street, and the rebellious slave Agamemnon, in Mandingo (Please forgive the weak sound quality…):