Beige, Brown, or Black
Vol. 13, no. 1 (Fall 1959): 38–43.
The late nineteen-forties, a brief period of sociological experimentation in American film-making, contained several works dealing specifically with problems involving Negro characters. Such films as Home of the Brave, Pinky, Lost Boundaries , and No Way Out were particularly memorable because they attempted to portray the Negro in a predominantly white environment; as a figure of dramatic importance, the Negro has long been overlooked or carefully avoided on the screen, chiefly because of the refusal of Southern theater exhibitors to book such films. The U.S. Motion Picture Code's rule regarding the depiction of Negro characters, notoriously outdated, has only managed to keep in effect a rigidly stereotyped view of a race whose economic and intellectual status has risen to such a degree since 1919 that one tends to look upon most Negro screen actors as creatures speaking the language of closet-drama.
American drama has suffered from a lack of Negro playwrights (not to mention Negro screen writers) who are able to present their characters in authentic and dramatically informative situations, for certainly few racial groups in this country flourish so actively on a level of melodrama, except perhaps the Puerto Ricans in New York, and yet, the two most successful stage works about contemporary Negro life are based upon the same rather bland premise: the sudden acquisition of a large sum of money by a middle-class family (Anna Lucasta and A Raisin in the Sun ). These plays succeed because they honestly develop character in an all-Negro milieu on a nonstereotyped basis—they reveal the Negro to audiences with the same sympathy and insight with which Sean O'Casey exhibited the Irish in Juno and the Paycock . So far, so good, but what has happened in the American cinema since the forties regarding the plight of the Negro?
First of all, the Supreme Court decisions regarding integration of Southern schools, in 1954, once more brought the entire question of Negro-
white relationships to the attention of the world. The incidents ensuing from this historic decree have yet to be conveyed in either stage or screen terms, and apparently, no one is courageous enough to do anything about it, but, at any rate, the Arkansas affair stirred interest in the Negro race once more as a focus for drama. Secondly, it was apparently decided by various Hollywood producers that a gradual succession of films about Negro-white relationships would have a beneficial effect upon box-office returns and audiences as well. The first of these films, Edge of the City (1956), is the most satisfactory because it is the least pretentious. The performance by Sidney Poitier (the Negro actor whose career has most benefited by the renaissance of the color theme) was completely authentic, but true to the film code, any hint of successful integration must be concluded by death, usually in some particularly gory fashion, and so Poitier gets it in the back with a docker's bale-hook. The most constructive contribution of Edge of the City to film history is one sequence in which Poitier talks philosophically to his white friend, using language that rings so truthfully and refreshingly in the ears that one suddenly realizes the tremendous damage that has been nurtured through the years because of Hollywood's perpetuation of the dialect-myth. The film was praised for its honesty, but its conclusion was disturbing; audiences wanted to know why the Negro had to be killed in order for the hero to achieve self-respect.
Strangely enough, this promising beginning of a revival of American cinematic interest in interracial relationships took a drastic turn with Darryl F. Zanuck's lavish production of Island in the Sun (1957). The focus changed from concern for an ordinary friendship between men of different racial backgrounds to the theme of miscegenation, considered to be, in Hollywoodian terms, a much bolder and more courageous source of titillation.
This film, made solely for sensationalistic reasons, was supposed to depict racial problems on the fictional West Indian island of Santa Marta, but it became simply a visually fascinating document without a real sense of purpose. Against a background of tropical beauty, a series of romantic attachments and longings are falsely attached to a group of famous personalities, each of whom is given as little to do as possible.
Harry Belafonte, a Negro singer who has risen to the astonishing and unprecedented stature of a matinee idol, was presented as David Boyeur, a labor leader for the island's native population, and his obvious attractions for a socially distinguished white beauty, Mavis (Joan Fontaine), created a furor among the Southern theater exhibitors, who either banned the film or deleted the Belafonte-Fontaine sequences. Actually, there were no love scenes between the two, only glances of admiration and dialogue of almost Firbankian simplicity. In fact, Boyeur's decision not to make love to Mavis is evasive and full
of chop-logic, and every indication is given that poor Mavis will literally pine away thereafter among the mango trees. On the other hand, a Negro girl, Margot (Dorothy Dandridge), is allowed to embrace and eventually marry a white English civil servant (John Justin) and, although their life on Santa Marta is segregated, they finally sail happily off to England together at the end of the film. And so, the crux of the matter of miscegenation is again at the mercy of the film production code. Although "color" is the most important problem on the island, it seems that a white man may marry a Negro girl and not only live , and live happily, but that a Negro man and a white woman dare
not think of touching. There is an odd moment in Island in the Sun when (after watching Mavis yearn for Boyeur in sequence after sequence) the Negro reaches up and lifts her slowly from a barouche, holding her waist. The shock-effect of this gesture upon the audience was the most subtle piece of eroticism in the film, and only the lack of honesty in the work as a whole made this hint of a prelude-to-embrace seem realistic.
Island in the Sun also stirred other concepts about color, for the problem of concealed racial ancestry is introduced, bringing out all sorts of moody behavior on the part of a young girl, Jocelyn (Joan Collins), and her brother, Maxwell (James Mason). Jocelyn attempts to break off her engagement to an English nobleman, but he ignores her racial anxieties and is willing to chance the improbabilities of an eventual albino in the family. Maxwell, however, is driven into gloom, drink, and eventual murder, one feels, because the Negro skeleton in the family closet has thoroughly rattled him. The entire film is certainly important as a study of the tropical myth in racial terms, and even Dandridge's character, though she comes out of the whole business fairly happily, is not entirely free from the stereotype of the Negro as sensualistic, for, at one point, she performs a rather unusual Los Angeles–primitive dance among the Santa Marta natives, an act that is quite out of character, if one knows anything at all about the problem of class consciousness among the Negroes themselves in the West Indies.
Miss Dandridge has been continually cast as the typically sexy, unprincipled lady of color, in all-Negro films like Carmen Jones (1956) and Porgy and Bess (1959), as well as in a singularly appalling film called The Decks Ran Red (1958), in which she is the only woman aboard a freighter in distress and, naturally, is pursued by a lusty mutineer, with much contrived suspense and old-hat melodrama. It is ironic, under the circumstances, to recall that this actress's dramatic debut in films coincided with that of Belafonte in Bright Road (1955), a minor work about a gentle schoolteacher and a shy principal in a Southern school.
The commercial success of Island in the Sun led to the decisive movement in Hollywood to make films dealing specifically with the theme of miscegenation. The color question appeared in the most unusual situations, particularly Kings Go Forth (1958), an epic cliché of wartime in France, where two soldiers (Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis) find it nicer to be in Nice than at the front. Sam (Sinatra) falls in love with Monique Blair (Natalie Wood), whose parents are American, although she has been reared in France. Monique lives with her widowed mother, and reveals to Sam that her father was a Negro. Exactly why this is introduced is never really clear unless it was intended to bring some sort of adult shock to a basically What Price Glory situation, for even Mademoiselle from Armentières is fashionably under the color line in contemporary war
films. There is also a triangle complication, for while Sam is away, Monique becomes infatuated with Britt (Curtis) after hearing him play a jazz solo on a trumpet. This implies that even Monique's French upbringing cannot assuage the jazz-tremors of her American Negro heritage. Of course, nothing is solved in the film. Although Sam and Britt go through a baptism of fire and limb-loss, their characters are molded out of a screen clay pit as tough-talking, hard-drinking, callous hedonists, and the fact that both love and racial awareness are merged in their personalities is supposed to be basis for poignancy; besides, marriage with Monique is only weakly suggested at the conclusion of the film. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of Kings Go Forth was its adherence to the lamentable Hollywood practice of casting a white actress in the part of a mulatto heroine, thereby weakening even further an already unsuccessful attempt to jump on the bandwagon of popular film concepts regarding hardhearted American officers falling madly in love with foreign girls of another race. Kings Go Forth convinced one that racial films were once more in vogue, and the so-called taboo theme was simply a "gimmick."
Although it attempts boldness, Night of the Quarter Moon (1959) only belabors the question of intermarriage. Ginny (Julie London) marries a wealthy San Franciscan, Chuck Nelson (John Drew Barrymore), while on a vacation in Mexico. When she reveals that their marriage might cause them trouble because of her racial background (she is one-quarter Portuguese-Angolan, which is, one supposes, cause for some sort of genetic alarm), Chuck tells her that
such statistics only bore him. However, the film erupts into a succession of violent and racially antagonistic episodes on the part of Chuck's society-minded mother (Agnes Moorehead), the San Francisco police force, and the neighbors. The fact that Chuck is a Korean war veteran, susceptible to mental blackouts and fatigue, creates an odd impression about American film myths of this nature. It would seem that war veterans are more susceptible to miscegenation, and that certain environments, like the Caribbean or Mexico, actually put one into that frame of mind which considers racial backgrounds to be of major insignificance, eventually leading to intermarriage. All of this chaos leads to one of the most incredible courtroom sequences in film history, during which Ginny's Negro lawyer (James Edwards) strips the blouse from her back in front of the judge so that her skin color can be revealed as white. Night of the Quarter Moon did contain one notable feature, however. It showed an adjusted, sophisticated, and extremely articulate interracial couple, Cy and Maria Robbin (Nat Cole and Anna Kashfi), and Maria's summation of a white man's general attitude toward a quadroon is a very forthright and adult statement that takes one by surprise.
It is, indeed, the social position of an individual who is able to pass for white that seems to bear most interest for film-makers, and it was only a matter of time (28 years) before a remake of Imitation of Life (1959) would appear. Fannie Hurst's novel, a tear-jerker, could possibly have been a fine film, considering the different film techniques and audience attitudes of 1931 and 1959. However, the earlier version of the film is the more honest of the two, if only for the fact that the mulatto girl, the true figure of pathos, was played by Fredi Washington, a Negro actress. But the basic premise that any Negro girl with a white skin is doomed to despair on a social level is maintained in a most unreal and almost farcical manner. The clichés are kept intact and aimed at the tear ducts, and once more, one cannot help feeling that a Negro screen writer might have been able to bring subtlety into the characterizations. Imitation of Life is a hymn to mother love, a popular fable of ironic contrasts between the light and the dark realms of racial discrimination. A famous actress, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), and her daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), are devoted to the Negro maid, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), and her mulatto child, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). But it is the behavior of Sarah Jane as a beautiful young woman that is handled falsely. Living in a nonsegregated environment in a Northern metropolis, surrounded by the glamour of Lora's world of the theater, it is inconceivable that Sarah Jane would be made to feel inferior by people around her, especially since she is not, by any stretch of the imagination, obviously a Negro. It is equally incomprehensible that Sarah Jane's taste in clothes would not be affected by the chic apparel of both Lora and Susie, both of whom symbolize a world to which she very much wants to
belong. The final stroke of absurdity lies in the sequence in which Sarah Jane is savagely beaten by her white boyfriend (Troy Donahue) when he learns that she is a Negro, implying that anyone who attempts to step out of an established class structure, racially or otherwise, must be subjected to physical violence. This attitude (equally out of place in a film like Room at the Top ) comes as a shock and reflects a dangerous kind of moralizing. As if inner anguish is not enough for an individual who is unable to successfully "pass" for white, or move from one social stratum to another, one must behold such a character actually beaten up and thrown into the gutter.
In Imitation of Life , Annie's funeral is epic sentiment in the charlotte russe tradition, complete with a spiritual by Mahalia Jackson—an episode that is
completely fictional and as incredible to Negro spectators as it is to white; and Sarah Jane's psychological maladjustment never leads one to imagine that she would so blatantly embrace her Negro heritage by hysterically throwing herself upon her mother's coffin; also one is never told what the girl eventually does or becomes. What is not understood by the makers of Imitation of Life is that a Negro's sympathies are with Sarah Jane, not Annie, and that contemporary audiences are able to discern the finely hypocritical dictums of the fake solution, the outdated stereotypes of the code, and, in a sense, the anti-integrationist's point of view.
The Negro character in the nineteen-fifties is very much the hero or heroine in isolation, and the cinema never quite illustrates this quality of "invisibility" and frustration as often as it should. Perhaps the most effective presentation of this particular aspect of racial adjustment is The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), in which Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) finds that he is the only person alive in New York City after some great destructive force has swept away all human existence. The horror of loneliness in New York, a potential Angkor Wat surrounded by steel foliage, is brilliantly evoked, at once underlining one's contemporary fears of sudden radioactive destruction, and emphasizing the symbolic figure of the Negro hero alone in society.
The appearance of two white people throws the film back into the world of color consciousness. Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens) meets Ralph, and for a time they exist together, but he insists upon maintaining separate living quarters. The racial issue remains symbolically in his mind, though, in reality, it is gone with the civilization around them. When Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer) arrives, however, a triangle is created, a wall of simple-minded clichés obscures the true situation, and, after a gun battle and fight, the men declare peace, join hands with Sarah, and walk into the oblivion of Wall Street together.
This parable exemplifies today's approach to the theme of interracialism: vague, inconclusive, and undiscussed. Like a fascinating toy, American film-makers survey the problem from a distance, without insight, and guided by a series of outmoded, unrealistic concepts regarding minorities. The major irony is this: that in a country where life is actually lived quite freely with races so intermingled, it is still difficult to capture this sense of freedom, of humanity, this robust diversity of backgrounds of American life upon the screen. As far as motion pictures are concerned, the Negro character remains mysterious because he is the most diversified by background, by color, and by regional dialect, and, considering the number of films involving Negroes, the race as a whole is inadequately represented on the screen. Represented solely by limited night-club entertainers and recording artists, and only a few outstanding young actors (Poitier, Belafonte, and Henry Scott, who has appeared in only one small role so far), it is no wonder that audiences cannot get a sense of truth between the black, brown, or beige images that vary so greatly from celluloid to reality, from mythology and stereotype to history and drama.