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Hollywood’s Powerful Films About Racial Conflict

Audiences transfixed by post-World War II dramas

Jul. 7, 2010
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There was a time when powerful, mature movie dramas of black-white racial conflict caused a stir throughout America. I’m not talking about the 1960s, when the modern Civil Rights Movement flowered, or the ’70s, when Blaxploitation films were running wild.

I’m 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.

The best 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.

For the 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).

The theme 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).

Among the 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

Three 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 1960s.

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.

This 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 admirable, indeed.

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.

Things are 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.

The white 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.


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