Southern Movie 50: “The Liberation of LB Jones” (1970)
Though Variety called it “not much more than an interracial sexploitation film,” 1970’s The Liberation of LB Jones tells a complex story about race, fairness, conscience, and status in a small Southern town. Based on Jesse Hill Ford’s novel of almost the same name, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1966, the film is mainly about the aging white lawyer Oman Hedgepeth, who is the town’s most prominent citizen. However, it is the title character, the town’s black funeral director, who drives the plot by seeking a divorce from his pretty young wife who has been having sex with a white police officer. The last film by German-born William Wyler, who also direct two films based on Lillian Hellman plays – 1941’s Little Foxes and 1961’s The Children’s Hour – The Liberation of LB Jones mixes sex and violence with racial tension to lead its audience down a difficult path.
The film opens showing a train rolling across a rural Southern landscape. A good-looking young white couple can be seen in one of the passenger cars, and they are smiling and smooching as they look out the window. In another seat is a scowling young black man, also looking out the window at the poverty of the black neighborhood along the tracks. The latter man pauses then and checks inside a cigar box he is carrying, showing us a pistol.
Soon, as the train slows, the black man leaves his seat and goes to jump off the train near an intersection where a couple of white police officers have stopped for the crossing. The man lands hard on the ground, the cigar box goes flying, and his jump draws the attention of one of the officers, a swarthy-looking man who comes over to question him. The previously scowling black man then begins to behave awkwardly, swaying about, rubbing his head, and smiling stupidly, maybe pretending to be retarded or at least harmless. He says that he has people in town, that he jumped near where he is going, so the suspicious white officer tells him to watch himself while he’s in town.
The credits roll and funky music plays as we see the train station for (fictional) Somerset, Tennessee. There, waiting on the young white couple, is an older white man in a suit with his black butler. The older man greets the young couple, who smile as they greet him, and they all load up in his big blue station wagon for a ride across the small town, past the courthouse and the tall Civil War monument.
Meanwhile, the black man with the cigar box walks down the street. He goes past a stinky fish market and covers his face, then goes into a small grocery store where a white man stands behind the counter. He buys a couple of items, and next we see him, he’s lying in the grass, grinning, and finishing a big meal. But as he cleans up his trash, he realizes something and panics— the cigar box is missing!
He goes back into the store, where the store owner asks, “Forget something?” to which the man replies, “A box with my things.” The scene then turns tense as the store owner reveals that he looked in the box and can’t let a black man with a loaded gun just walk out. It would be a “dereliction of my duty,” he says, and it would make him an “accomplish” [sic]. As the so-far-nameless black man stares at him coldly, the smiling white store owner says that he doesn’t see why he can’t just keep the gun. Done with the games and ploys, the black man reaches over the counter and forcibly takes the box from the antagonist, causing him to fall into his own shelves and dump items all over the floor. We understand from this interchange, that this newcomer is not to be trifled with.
Back to the parallel story, the big blue station wagon pulls up in front of a law office, whose sign reads “Hedgepeth and Mundine.” The younger man pauses and looks approvingly, then they all go inside. The elder man Oman Hedgepeth (Lee J. Cobb, recognizable as the angriest of the Twelve Angry Men) enter his law office and introduces his secretary to his nephew Steve Mundine (Lee Majors, later of Six Million Dollar Man fame) and Steve’s wife Nella (a young Barbara Hershey, later to star in Boxcar Bertha). Young Steve will be Oman’s new law partner.
Sitting in the lobby of the office, waiting, is a middle-aged black man in a black three-piece suit. Oman speaks to him – he is LB Jones (Roscoe Lee Brown) – and asks him to wait a moment. Oman leads Steve and Nella into a stylish-looking office that Steve will now occupy, then leaves them so he can talk to LB, who quickly explains that he wants a divorce and wants Oman to represent him. Oman asks what the problem is, and LB alludes to infidelity. In a crass move, a smirking Oman replies, about the young wife, “A man your age, can’t you make some concessions?” No, LB tells him, then shares that his wife won’t contest the divorce either. Oman doesn’t want the job, though, and says he is too busy. But before LB can leave, Oman introduces LB to Steve and Nella, then takes the young couple into his office. LB goes without complaining, but Steve is clearly interested in the man and his case, where Oman is not.
Now, the still-nameless, gun-toting black man is walking across a field behind some businesses. He comes to a barbed wire fence, crosses it easily, and arrives at a small club, painted red, with neon beer signs in the windows. Here, his expression changes to something like happiness, and the man even playfully slam-dunks an imaginary basketball on a battered hoop in the yard. Inside the bar is empty, and he calls a woman’s name, “Lavorn.” An elderly woman eases down the stairs but cannot tell who he is in the dark. Yet, when she turns on a light, she recognizes a face she knows and calls him “Sonny Boy.” They both smile, tear up, and hug. The man is clearly home.
Back at the law office, Steve asks if he can take LB Jones’ divorce case. Oman seems perplexed, but Steve says he’s got to start somewhere, so Oman instructs his secretary to call LB about it. After those arrangements are made, Oman, Steve, and Nella get back in the blue station wagon and head home to Oman’s large, white-columned house where the young couple will be staying.
The scene then shifts to LB Jones in his funeral parlor. He is working on a corpse when a hobbling, elderly woman comes in to pay on her future funeral. She is silly and almost giddy at the idea of having a fine coffin, and the subdued, mild-mannered LB plays along, even humoring her when she wants to go and see the coffin she is paying for. We see here that LB Jones is a kind man, upstanding and fair in his dealings, but also a good business man who knows how to make a buck. Here, we also meet Benny, LB’s assistant, who we follow to the next scene.
Back at the little club, a pretty young woman is dancing as few people sit at the little tables, Benny comes in and dances with woman for a moment, then goes in back, where Mama Lavorn has fixed Sonny Boy a plate of food. At first Benny doesn’t know him, but when Mama reminds him, Benny lights up. She explains that Sonny Boy has been gone for thirteen years, and Sonny Boy replies that what has brought him back is love— and hate. As Mama’s mood sours, Benny asks if he has come back for Bumpas. Sonny replies, smiling, “Stanley Bumpas,” then opens the cigar box to show both of them the gun. Lamenting the circumstance, Mama tells us what is going on: the policeman Stanley Bumpas beat Sonny Boy severely years ago, and she knew back then, as now, that Sonny Boy would eventually kill him. Sonny Boy has come back to do that.
At this point, less than twenty minutes to the movie, we have two parallel plots: the divorce of LB Jones over his wife’s infidelities, and the plan of Sonny Boy to kill Bumpas.
The next we see, LB Jones walks into a loud cattle auction and tries to edge his way past the assembled men, all white, who only half-yield to his passing by. He sits down with Oman, and we get a glimpse into Oman’s character when the white man on the other side of LB gets up and moves, refusing to sit next to a black man, but Oman doesn’t budge. Here, Oman tells LB that his wife has hired a lawyer to contest the divorce, a circumstance that catches LB unaware. “What does it mean,” LB asks Oman. It means they will have to go to court.
LB is soon at his home to confront his wife Emma, who is dressing in their bedroom. Emma is pretty, but also catty and arrogant, everything that the cool and measured LB Jones is not. He asks her about the lawyer, about why she is contesting the divorce, but she only half-answers. He then says that they don’t have to get a divorce, but that she must stop seeing the other man. But Emma laughs at him, saying that Willie Joe is twice the man he is. Their conversation goes in circles, leading nowhere, and soon LB gives up and leaves the house.
We begin to understand the problem better in the next scene, as we again meet those two officers who stopped for the train in that early scene. The swarthy officer in the passenger seat calls the driver “Stanley” – this is Stanley Bumpas, who Sonny Boy wants to kill – then tells him that he wants to go visit Emma. The driver retorts by calling Willie Joe by name — this is Emma’s other man — and halfheartedly agrees to drive him there. Here, at the center of the conflict are two white police officers who do as they please, no matter who it hurts: one who has mercilessly beaten a black boy, the other who is shamelessly conducting an affair with a black woman. And if that tension weren’t enough, the police car pulls up in the Jones’ driveway as LB is standing on his porch. Willie Joe pauses for just a moment, but then smiles, says good morning to LB, and walks right past him into his house. LB quietly accepts the insult. In the Jones’ bedroom, Emma falls out of her clothes and into Willie Joe’s arms.
Across town, LB storms into Oman’s law office, defying the secretary who tries to stop him. Oman is talking with Steve over some court papers, but agrees to see LB nonetheless. LB explains that he has talked to Emma, and she will not yield. Oman tries to speak, but LB tells him, “I didn’t come here for advice.” Oman is taken aback, as Steve looks on, then asks what his instructions are. LB says to take it into open court. Oman tries to object, remarking on the unwise move of calling out a white man in open court, but LB replies, “To hell with the white man.” Oman is now really taken aback, but says that he will do what LB asks, and the resolved man leaves.
Oman then carries the film into the issue of late-Civil Rights white liberalism. He looks at Steve and says, “See what you get trying to practice nigger law.” Steve doesn’t like it, but Oman keeps on. We see here that Steve is the idealistic young liberal, and Oman is an older, more practical accommodationist. Steve wants LB to be treated equally, but Oman knows that it won’t happen that way. Then, Oman hits the brakes and tells Steve that he is going to share a personal story that he has never told anyone. He explains to his young protege that, in law school, he fell in love with a black woman named Cassie, but knew they could never be together. Oman confides that the experience helped him to see at least one black person as a human being, and that his fiancee found out, which is why he never married. Steve tries to apply his own ethics to the situation, but the morally wizened old lawyer says that he has an errand to run and leaves.
Oman’s errand takes him to the police station. First, we see the drunken jailer and two officer heckling a black man who is being booked, then Oman walks in. Willie Joe is there, and Oman pulls him into an office for a heart-to-heart. He explains, with a mock hypothetical, that a certain black undertaker is getting a divorce and that his soon-to-be ex-wife has been having an affair with a white man, but that soon-to-be ex-wife had also gotten a lawyer so it would be going to court, and of course, if that white man happened to be police officer with a family then having his name said out loud in open court could be bad . . . Willie Joe listens to all this, agreeing completely, and at the end of the conversation, also agrees that there are still ways to prevent this from happening. For example, if that white man could talk that woman into not having a lawyer, the whole thing could be resolved quietly. Willie Joe understands what needs to be done.
Back at Oman’s house, he is lounging in a hammock and drinking whiskey when Steve comes to talk to him. Nella and Steve exchange concerned looks before Steve walks over to Oman, who starts a causal conversation. Steve quickly changes the tone, though, and remarks to the older man how he had once seen him win a big case against a railroad, which caused Oman to be his hero. “But not anymore,” replies Oman. Steve then proceeds to tell Oman that he is a racist. Oman’s response is to admit that it might be true, but the years of navigating the racial complexities in the town have caused him to compromise many times. He tells Steve that he will find himself compromising, too. Steve then tells him that, as a prominent citizen, he could change things, but Oman just grimaces. He is a tired old man now, and he sardonically invites Steve to take the lead on that. Steve leaves disappointed that his idealistic pleas have not changed the old veteran.
However, the tension is even worse at LB’s house. It is now night, and Willie Joe arrives. He walks through the empty house and into the bedroom, where Emma is lounging on the bed. She believes he is there for love, but he isn’t. He starts into her about what it will do to him if their affair is exposed in public. Emma tries to shrug it off, but Willie Joe gets angry and restrains her, shoves her, pulls a gun on her, then slaps her across the face. Now, Emma’s attitude changes, and their relationship changes. Emma invites him to make good on his threats, but Willie Joe doesn’t, and she reminds him that she has become accustomed to a certain lifestyle that Willie Joe can’t pay for. Then, after tense exchange about calling off the lawyers and possibly having Willie Joe talk to LB, Emma reveals that she is pregnant— with Willie Joe’s baby! Willie Joe is flabbergasted and suggests an abortion, but Emma won’t hear of it, so he beats her savagely and leaves.
LB is not at home during all this, because he is at Mama Lavorn’s club on a sales call for funeral arrangements. Over at the bar sits the pretty young woman who tried to dance with Benny earlier. She puts her attention on LB this time, but he keeps seeing Emma’s face on the young woman.
Back out on the streets, we see Willie Joe and Stanley Bumpas again. They have gone to meet a young African American woman who wants to see what she can do to get her husband out of jail. She is obviously nervous and naive, and the two police officers tell her to get into the car. She doesn’t understand why but wants to help her husband, who will lose his job if he is in jail and doesn’t show up for work, so she goes. Of course, they take her outside of town to a secluded area and rape her.
Returning to Mama’s club, Benny has sat down with them, and Mama is talking to LB about his upcoming divorce. She assures LB that she will testify against Willie Joe in court if she needs to, but LB tells her that she need not worry about it. Then LB tells them a story about something he saw once: a black man picketing alone in front of a furniture store, when the white owner came out with a shotgun and ran him off. LB wonders out loud what would have happened if the black man hadn’t run. “He’d be a dead man,” Mama says, and LB muses some more about what it would mean to stand one’s ground.
After a brief scene, where Willie Joe and Stanley drop off the crying and distraught woman they’ve raped, LB is offered protection by Mama. Sonny Boy will serve as his bodyguard, since “colored can’t go up against white alone.”
LB arrives at home with Sonny Boy and Benny, then goes into his bedroom to find Emma with her face beaten and bruised. He tends to her with kindness, but she breaks into tears and rolls away from him. “Keep going with him, Emma, finally, he’s gonna kill ya,” LB says to her back.
In the morning, Oman is eating breakfast in his grand dining room when Willie Joe arrives to talk with him. He tries to babble out an explanation, but Oman says that all he wants to know is whether it’s “fixed.” Willie Joe says that it isn’t yet but that it will be. Oman then asks him about his wife and kids, about things in general, then shifts his tone, saying that everything’s fine, and “Let’s keep it that way.” Willie Joe gets the message and leaves, and Steve and Oman share a brief word about how Steve has put him up to handling this situation.
The butler Henry interrupts though, jibing Oman about being hard to deal with, then Steve leaves and Nella asks Oman about the black woman he was once involved with. Steve wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but he told Nella. For a moment, Oman laments losing the opportunity to have a wife and family, telling Nella that she and Steve mean everything to them. Nella doesn’t want to see Steve lose respect for his uncle, but Oman knows it isn’t that simple.
“I don’t understand, what does Steve want of me?” Oman asks.
“To treat LB Jones as if he were white,” Nella answers.
Oman says he doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, then apprises the young woman that he must follow his own conscience. To end the scene, Henry comes back to provide a little more comic relief.
Across town, Willie Joe shows up at LB’s house. He, Benny, and Sonny Boy are eating breakfast in the kitchen when Willie Joe comes in without knocking. Benny and Sonny Boy hide – in case Willie Joe gets violent, they can spring on him – and the policeman comes in. He then launches into a half-excuse, half-threat speech about how he can be “reasonable” if a certain black man can forget about lawyers and divorces and let things stay as they as are. Stanley Bumpas is honking the horn outside, making Willie Joe even more tense, so he closes out with LB by saying that he wants to get word by 6:00 PM on Monday that the whole thing is “called off.” LB remains stoic and silent, and Willie Joe says, “Don’t ever say you weren’t told,” then leaves. As they’re preparing to leave themselves, Sonny Boy acknowledges what he has also overheard during Willie Joe’s tirade, that Stanley Bumpas – the man he came to kill – will be working on his farm all day.
Next we see, Stanley is on his tractor, and Sonny Boy is sneaking over to get near him. Sonny Boy aims the pistol through a space in a log as Stanley approaches, but he doesn’t shoot. He then pauses, closes his eyes, turns around, and puts the gun back in the cigar box as he starts to laugh. Back at the cafe, he is still laughing as he tells Mama what happened. “I don’t have no blood on my hands,” he tells her. Mama replies, “Lordy, Lordy, this is the day.”
Later, at the police station, Willie Joe is lamenting that he has not heard from LB. Stanley reminds him that he has to handle it, and the two men leave.
At LB’s office, the phone rings, and the person hangs up as LB answers. He turns the light off and goes to leave. The clock shows 8:25 PM, and the phone rings again. This time, it is Sonny Boy saying that Benny has been arrested and is in jail. LB tells them that he is on his way down there, but he stops first to talk to Emma. He is once again stoic, while Emma is smug, calling him “foolish” and “big man” over what she knows his decision to be: to take on the white establishment.
LB gets into his black Cadillac and is soon trailed by Willie Joe and Stanley, who pull him over in an isolated area. Willie Joe orders LB out of the car and puts LB in the back of the police car. As Willie Joe beats LB in the back seat, Stanley drives to a wooded area, but LB jumps out of the car and makes a run for it. He soon arrives at a junkyard and tries to hide among the rusty car hulls. But Willie and Stanley also make their way to the junkyard. They begin to search, but lose him.
It is at this point that LB Jones has his “liberation.” As he sits, hiding, he has a flashback to the incident at the furniture store where the picketer was chased off. LB Jones will no longer run. He comes out calmly and surrenders. Stanley says that LB has realized there was no using in running. And LB replies, “I’m not running . . . anymore.” Then, Willie Joe gives him several last chances to call off the divorce as he beats him, but LB still refuses. Stanley intervenes and tapes LB’s mouth, then Willie Joe shoots him in the back of the head. LB Jones falls over dead. To cover up their blatant murder, Stanley mutilates LB’s body while Willie Joe vomits, then they hang up LB’s body to make it seems as though he were killed for some other reason.
Back at the jail, Stanley tells the drunk jailer that they’ve killed LB Jones. The jailer is surprised, and Stanley tells him that they’ll manufacture some charges and arrest someone for it.
At the junkyard, a small crowd of black people have come to witness and to take down LB’s body. Sonny Boy cradles the smaller man like a child and gently closes his eyes, as Mama looks on.
In the morning, Oman gets the phone call from the distraught mayor (Dub Taylor) that LB jones is dead. Henry brings in his juice and coffee, and remarks, without being told by Oman what has happened, “It could’ve happened to anyone.” (News must have traveled fast in the black community, since Henry already knew.) At the mayor’s office, Oman talks first to the mayor then to the police chief, asking to see Benny and Emma, who have been accused and have signed confessions. The chief admits that he used a cattle prod to incite them to sign. The problem is that Benny was locked up in the cell all night— Oman reminds them that only a very cunning man could escape the jail, kill LB, and sneak back into jail where he would confess to murder! The snafu is obvious, even to the corrupt police, and both are released. Yet, on his way out of the jail, Benny passes Emma and slaps hell out of her.
Back in the mayor’s office, Oman and the mayor are talking to Willie Joe, who has turned himself in for killing LB. Willie Joe says that Oman told him what to do— to “fix” it. So he did, he fixed it, he killed LB Jones. While the mayor and Willie Joe argue over culpability, Oman is left to contend with the results of his own actions, of his own racism, of his own accommodations of injustice. Oman then launches into another one of these accommodations, telling Willie Joe to be a stand-up guy, to think of his family, and to promise to be silent about what he has done. Willie Joe agrees, and Oman switches his gun with another. From his position as city lawyer, Oman Hedgepeth has helped his town to avert racial strife and civil unrest at the expense of justice.
Steve arrives at city hall next and questions Oman in the hallway about what has happened. Oman’s only reply is that they’ve handled it “the way things have always been handled in this town . . . quietly.” Steve is silently disappointed, while Oman drives off in his car.
Meanwhile, out on his farm, Stanley Bumpas is once again on his tractor. In the aftermath of LB’s murder, Sonny Boy once again comes to confront the white man, but this time, doesn’t do it from hiding. He walks boldly across the open field and points a gun squarely at Stanley. Sonny Boy’s expression is cold, as Stanley is quaking with fear. But instead of shooting Stanley, Sonny Boy shoves him into the teeth of the combine. Stanley is chewed and gnarled as Sonny Boy watches.
Back at home, Oman sees a taxi cab pull up in his driveway, and Steve and Nella are coming downstairs with their suitcases. Steve will not remain in Oman’s house, nor will he remain as his law partner, and on the way out only says one word to his uncle, “Goodbye.” Nella stops and hugs him briefly then follows her husband out. As the couple leaves in the taxi, gospel music plays, then the scene shifts to LB Jones’ funeral.
The Liberation of LB Jones then ends as it began, with Steve and Nella and Sonny Boy on the train. This time, they’re leaving town.
In May 2020, amid protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody had The Liberation of LB Jones in his “What to Stream” column. I had heard of the film years ago, and had seen it already, but it’s a particularly elusive one and even appears in rare-movie lists. While I wasn’t surprised by Brody’s timing, his description was a stark contrast to that assessment in Variety; Brody wrote, “if not an unmitigated artistic masterwork, [it] does offer an illuminating view of history and also a disturbingly accurate picture of what hasn’t changed in America in the intervening half century.” Not exactly “interracial sexploitation.”
For me, The Liberation of LB Jones falls into a category with movies like The Klansman and White Lightning. Nothing is easy in these films. The answers aren’t simple or clear. There are some powerful films (and some bad ones) about race and class in Southern small towns from the 1960s and 1970s, but even some of the best wrap things up neatly in the end, like In the Heat of the Night. But The Liberation of LB Jones doesn’t do that. The brutal Stanley Bumpas may be dead, but Emma and Willie Joe go free. As LB’s wife, Emma will even enjoy LB’s wealth after he’s gone, where Benny will have to continue without his friend. Ultimately, too, Oman will remain powerful and influential but lonely, likely continuing his long-standing habit of “fixing” things.
Like The Klansman, this story is also difficult to accept in a modern context, because it focuses so heavily on the struggles of the white liberal, rather than on the injustice perpetrated against African Americans. Was this film really about liberation, considering that LB dies only moments after he ceases to be afraid? Is that the message: that blacks only have the choice to live in fear or die? There’s also Sonny Boy, who had liberated himself from trauma without committing murder, only to be driven to murder in the end. Then there’s Steve, the white idealist who regards himself as free of racism but who doesn’t act then simply leaves. And finally, Oman: was he liberated? At the end of the film, all we see is his back.
The Liberation of LB Jones is more than an exploitation film, but it does have some of those elements and a little bit of that styling. About its Southern-ness, the characters are realistic enough, as is the scenario. Racial lines have been crossed, corrupt police have terrorized black citizens, and eventually one man has had enough. He will take action to see justice prevail, knowing he will lose his life for it. Meanwhile, comfortable people maneuver and plot behind the scenes, prioritizing their own comfort and peace over any pursuit of justice or fairness. The way some saw it, LB Jones needed to suck it up and suffer the indignity, so that ordinary life could go on in the town. Despite the philandering and the hypocrisy, what really mattered was maintaining the status quo.
Note: Here, I use the date 1970, not 1969, for the film. Most current resources online list the date as 1970, and IMDb has the release date as March 18, 1970. However, the copyright date in the film’s credits is 1969, and the date on the Variety review is 1969.