Hollywood’s Powerful Films About Racial Conflict
Audiences transfixed by post-World War II dramas
talking about the post-World War II years, when much of the country was still
racially segregated. Hollywood
was just beginning to deal with the problems of race relations, which often
erupted into violence. And audiences were transfixed.
place to experience this turning point in America’s domestic history is cable
TV’s Turner Classic Movies, where the finest vintage films are alive and well,
uncut and commercial-free.
last 15 years, TCM has featured knowledgeable in-studio hosts doling out movie
trivia. This is what I grew up on from the late-1940s through the ’60s, and I
feel like a kid in a candy store when watching. The smorgasbord of vintage Hollywood goodies you’ll see there includes many of the
finest black-oriented films ever made.
My fave is
1961’s A Raisin in the Sun. Others
include Imitation of Life (1934); Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (1943); Home of the Brave (1949); No Way Out (1950); Cry, the Beloved Country (1951); The Memberof the Wedding
(1952); Bright Road (1953); and Carmen Jones (1954).
only picked up steam with the rising Civil Rights Movement in the form of Something of Value and Island in the Sun (1957); The Defiant Ones and St. LouisBlues (1958); Porgy and Bess
and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959); Pressure Point (1962); Purlie Victorious (1963); and Nothing But a Man and One Potato, Two Potato (1964).
nonpareil black actors appearing in such films were Louise Beavers, James
Edwards, Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Harry
Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Rex
Ingram, Claudia McNeil, Louis Gossett Jr., Eartha Kitt, Brock Peters, Diahann
Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Abbey Lincoln, Nina Mae McKinney, Nat King Cole,
Robert Earl Jones and William Marshall.
Three Standout Films
tingling racial dramas crackling with suspense rank at the top: 1949’s Intruder in the Dust and Lost Boundaries and 1951’s The Well. Photographed in black and
white, each was considered daring at the time for depicting the humiliation of
segregation, racial conflict and white mob psychology prior to the tumultuous
Intruder in the Dust is a realistic
adaptation of a William Faulkner novel set in and around a small Southern town
after World War II. It tells the story of a proud, elderly black man (played by
the great Juano Hernandez) accused of killing a young white man, although there
were no witnesses. White residents are enraged and form a lynch mob.
Hernandez’s riveting, albeit understated, performance is supported by Claude
Jarman Jr. as a young white boy who refuses to believe the man is guilty.
Elizabeth Patterson is brilliant as an old white woman who agrees to help prove
the accused man innocent. David Brian, as the boy’s uncle, is a lawyer who
reluctantly defends Hernandez.
stunning film presents an authentic, down-home look, and its disturbing content
was in keeping with a new wave of honesty in portraying simmering suspicions
and tensions between blacks and whites that remain today. Hernandez’
dignity—which he displays in the face of adversity in other message movies—is
Lost Boundaries is the true story of a
light-skinned black doctor (Mel Ferrer) who graduates from a mostly white
medical school in Chicago in the 1920s, but is
rejected by a black hospital in Georgia
due to his color. Frustrated, he and his equally white-looking wife (Beatrice
Pearson) then pass for white to practice in a small New Hampshire town.
fine for 20 years. But at the outbreak of World War II, the doctor is denied a
commission in the segregated Navy (which didn’t accept blacks as officers)
after his race is discovered in a security check. Ferrer and Pearson finally
share the family secret with their grown, white-looking son and daughter. Word
gets out and previously friendly townspeople react negatively, causing
complications and embarrassment. This heart-wrenching film is enhanced by noted
black actors, including Canada Lee, William Greaves and Leigh Whipper.
The Well concerns mob violence in
a racially mixed small town when a 5-year-old black girl (Gwendolyn Laster)
falls into an abandoned well after being seen with a white man (Harry Morgan),
nephew of the leading citizen (Barry Kelley). Armed mobs form as Kelley vows to
break Morgan out of jail and drive all black people out of town.
sheriff (Richard Rober) tries to contain the vitriolic race hatred sparked by
gossip, which turns into unbridled violence by both sides. The marvelous black
cast also includes Ernest Anderson, Maidie Norman, Bill Walker and the late
George Hamilton of Milwaukee,
my former neighbor and one of my family’s dearest friends.
A seminal film on race relations, replete with raw anti-black epithets, The Well speaks volumes about crowd psychology and unfounded rumors. Along with Intruder inthe Dust and Lost Boundaries, it retains its troubling power nearly 60 years later.