“Down south they used to say, ‘If you white, you alright. If you brown, you can hang around. If you black, stand back…’” Louis de Rochemont’s “Lost Boundaries” (1949)
There was time when powerful, mature movie dramas of Black-White racial conflict caused a stir in Milwaukee and 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 — or all the years since.
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 race relations problems, which often erupted into violence. And Black audiences here, and everywhere, were aroused.
Every Black History Month, cable TV’s Turner Classic Movies shows many of these late 1940s-‘60s films in crisp black-and-white, uncut and commercial-free. But they are worth watching all year-long, and viewing them takes me back to the Milwaukee neighborhoods of my youth.
My favorite is 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Significant others include “Imitation of Life” (1934); “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” (1943); “Home of the Brave” and “Pinky” (1949); “No Way Out” and “Young Man With a Horn” (1950); “Cry the Beloved Country” (1951); “Member of the Wedding” and “Lydia Bailey” (1952); “Bright Road” (1953) and “Carmen Jones” (1954).
“Something of Value” and “Island in the Sun” (1957); “The Defiant Ones,” “Anna Lucasta” and “St. Louis Blues” (1958); “Porgy and Bess,” “Odds Against Tomorrow” and “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” (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, Fredi Washington, James Edwards, Ethel Waters, Canada Lee, Sidney Poitier, Diana Sands, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, Rex Ingram, Leigh Whipper, Bernie Hamilton, Claudia McNeill, Louis Gossett Jr., Eartha Kitt, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Ethel Waters, Nina Mae McKinney, Nat King Cole, Robert Earl Jones and William Marshall.
Three tingling racial dramas crackling with suspense rank at, or near, 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 he 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-skin 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.
With Ferrer home, 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 five-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 evolves into unbridled violence by both sides. The marvelous Black cast also includes Ernest Anderson, Maidie Norman, Bill Walker and Milwaukee’s George Hamilton — a dear family friend who lived across the street from us near 5th and Lloyd.
A seminal film on race relations — replete with raw anti-Black epithets — “The Well” speaks volumes on crowd psychology and unfounded rumors. Along with “Intruder in the Dust” and “Lost Boundaries,” it retains its troubling power nearly 65 years later.
–Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist
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