Southern Movie 24: “Black Like Me”

The stark black-and-white 1964 film Black Like Me offers a choppy and vague purview of the substance in the 1961 book of the same name. Directed by Carl Lerner, who also made the equally stark films 12 Angry Men and Requiem for a Heavyweight, the movie tells the story of a white journalist from Texas named John Horton (played by James Whitmore) who darkens his skin so he can travel through the Deep South as a black man and write about the experience.

Black Like Me opens on a cramped interstate bus that is wavering along a rural road. White passengers are sitting toward the front of the bus, and black passengers toward the back, though a few stand in the aisle, among them a stern-looking middle-aged white woman. When the black man sitting by the window offers her the empty seat next to him, she screws up her face and declares to no one in particular how rude and uppity black people have gotten. This, in turn, draws mild ire from a black woman sitting two rows back, but the tension quickly subsides, and the bus driver makes a stop at a ramshackle store for a five-minute bathroom break.

Immediately, the tension rachets up again when the white bus driver does not want to let the black riders get off the bus. At first, he fails when he calls “Boy!” after one black man who pays him no mind, then he succeeds on his second try when he halts the man who has just offered the seat to the white woman. The passengers quickly return, and the driver admonishes the black man who ignored him, “Didn’t you hear me call you?” to which the man replies in mock deference, “I heard you say boy, but I didn’t think you was talkin’ to me.” Just when the ride might continue, the frustrated rider whose offer was refused and who was denied a bathroom break informs the driver that he is getting off right here. We have met our protagonist, and though we still don’t know much about him, we sense that something is odd here.

As the well-dressed but yet-unnamed man enters the unnamed town, he is immediately greeted on the sidewalks by suspicious looks from white people, who stop and look hard at him as he passes. When he stops another black man on the sidewalk to ask where he can get a hotel room, his education on being black in the South begins: there are no hotel rooms for him, so he must find someone stay with. During this exchange, we learn the man’s name – John – and as the two walk down the sidewalk to find John some food and a place to stay, the hospitable local gives him a series of instructions: don’t look at that, and don’t go in there. There has been trouble lately, John learns, and as the men walk to the house where he will put John up, a wild carload of howling whites chase and harry them through the night.

The storytelling in Black Like Me jumps around a bit, employing flashbacks and asides to tell us who John Horton is. After he is settled in his temporary lodgings in the home of a black man named Doc and his family, John’s story goes back to its beginning: poolside at a swanky home, a now-white John is a writer trying to convince his publisher to let him go “under cover” as a black man so he can expose the real effects of bigotry. Reluctantly, the publisher says yes but warns him that, if he is discovered, violence will surely follow. Interwoven into this background is a scene about John agonizing over how this endeavor will affect his white wife.

When we get back to “black” John, he is trying to eat his meal and smoke his cigarette quietly in a black cafe, while a belligerent man at the counter derides the other patrons as weaklings and idiots. John is visibly uncomfortable, and of course, the strange man sits down with John in his booth, tells him that he is the only one in the place who understands, and tries to make friends. The man tells John how he was in prison but has recently gotten out, and how he is looking for Catholic church, but that seems like enough to convince John that he is bad news.

When John gets back home, Doc asks him to play something on their piano, and while John does, we get another series of flashbacks. To alter his outward appearance, John has undergone a series of medical treatments, using both drugs and tanning, to turn himself “black.” Yet, he recognizes that he must transform inwardly as well, so he asks for and gets the help of a black shoe-shine man who agrees to lead him through the right ways to behave. After those scenes lay down the facts we need to know to follow the story, we get back to “black” John. By this point, we at least understand why John looks like a white guy in black face. (Being frank, when John’s disguise is so cheap-looking that, when he is settling into his room and Doc brings him a pitcher of water for his basin, I was worried that he would wash off the stage make-up.)

The middle portions of this film adaptation, which form the core of the content, are choppy and ill-connected. John Horton meets a series of people, mostly white, who give us small glimpses into what it might be like to be black in the South: a salacious traveling salesmen who hyper-focuses on interracial sex, a wild nighttime street scene followed by an all-black rooming house, a refusal from a white grocery-store manager when John answers a help-wanted sign, a park where John sits on the wrong bench (next to white woman), another salacious old white man who discusses having sex with the black women he hires. Then, after two brief scenes when John thinks about his wife then catches a ride from a white guy who is surprisingly kind, the barrage continues: John gets accused of stealing by his gas-station employer , he goes to a black nightclub and declines to spend the night with the woman he is set up with, then is chased by two young white guys who taunt and harass him on a deserted city street.

Exhausted emotionally, John Horton pays a visit to a friend, a newspaper editor with staunch progressive courage. Here, John unloads about the horrible conditions that he has seen and experienced. This crisis of faith in a progressive political ideal leads him to question his friend: why do we do this? why do we believe that it can change? However, John is met with smiles and kindness, encouraged to rest, and chided to continue his difficult journey.

Back out on the road, the barrage continues: John is once again denied a job based on his skin color, and while eating in a desolate, empty black cafe, he listens to the proprietor, an older black woman, speak her bitter peace about being black in America. As he finishes eating, another patron has come in to have a cup of coffee. Thinking that John is black and recognizing that he is educated, the young white patron insists that John come back to his hotel room to talk more about racial issues in the South. John reluctantly agrees and finds that this white man is a progressive sociologist. But this man too is obsessed with sex, reverting their otherwise-educated conversation back to notions that black people are wildly sexual creatures. Frustrated and angry, John throws the man down and lectures him on his attitudes.

As the movie draws to a close, John Horton is near a breaking point. He knew that this journey was going to be difficult, but in the thick of it, living with these realities has proven to be too much for a white writer undercover. John seeks solace in his faith, going to visit a Catholic priest for advice. Other than the one jovial white man who offered him donuts during a brief ride, the priest is only other decent white person he has met. John confesses that he is also white and that he is a changed man: “It horrifies me,” John says of his experiences, and the priest explains that he has lost his “pride of self,” which is a good thing. As John spouts his confusion over having seen both sides, the priest asks him whether or why he thought it was required of him to take on this strange journey. But John has done it, and there’s no turning back.

After leaving the church, John has more negative experiences to come. He makes a brief visit to a beach, where he attempts to play in the sand with a little white girl whose mother shouts at her in fear. Then, he is treated hatefully by the old white lady at the bus ticket counter who doesn’t want to make change for his ten-dollar bill. Two more rejections to heap onto his psyche.

After John stops by the newsstand and picks up a copy of a magazine with his (white) picture on the cover, Black Like Me ends when John visits yet another Southern town. At the bus stop, he meets an old black man who offers to let John stay in his home. The old man is the father of a young man who is participating in a local Civil Rights demonstration, and when John meets this young activist, he reveals himself to them as being white. Unprepared for their negative reactions to his ruse, John is appalled that both father and son are angry and want him gone. John pleads with them to let him explain how he is trying to show the white world what the black world is like. But neither of the men want to hear it, and Black Like Me closes with John walking down the street as a montage of the characters and scenes rolls by.

The three main problems with this 1964 adaptation of Black Like Me have nothing to do with the validity of the sentiments or ideas expressed. Mainly, it’s just not a very good movie. It’s choppy and disjointed and does a poor job of tying the events together. The second problem is the distractingly hokey make-up put on white actor James Whitmore to give the impression that he is passing for black. But he doesn’t look black— at all. Finally, the near-complete lack of specificity about geographic locations puts John, over and over, in a town in the South. In the book Black Like Me, the main character is in specific places, like New Orleans and Montgomery. For example, I gathered that the opening scenes were supposed to be in New Orleans, but that’s not explained.

On the other hand, even though the movie itself is particularly weak, the subject matter was timely in 1964. This adaptation of Black Like Me came out during the thick of the Civil Rights movement: the year after the Birmingham church bombing and the March on Washington, the same year as Freedom Summer, and the year before the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March. The nation was wrestling with explaining to white America what it meant to be black in the South, what it meant to live under Jim Crow segregation. Though the storytelling isn’t stellar, the individual incidents ring true to those hardships, and perhaps John’s failings and frustrations mirrored white America’s: no matter how hard you try, you still won’t completely understand how it feels to be black.

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