1964’s Black Like Me film has come out on DVD and will, no doubt, evoke the usual amused responses to James Whitmore’s weak makeup job, and there will be many pre-50-year-old viewers who write it off as simply politically incorrect or racist, just another dumb oddity from the ’60s.
But the film was based on a once-popular 1961 John Howard Griffin book about a white journalist who subjects himself to taking drugs, sun-lamp treatments, and skin creams in order to ‘become’ black and travel the pre-civil-rights-movement South to vicariously experience what blacks did. Generally, and for the most part, Griffin himself did pass as black, regarded as such by whites and blacks alike. Griffin’s motives, as he presented them, were altruistic–he wanted to present ‘the other side’ of the then-race division story and to ‘walk a mile in the shoes’ of blacks–a vicarious technique still used with variations in contemporary news situations.
The stories Griffin presented were not pretty and did much to draw attention to degrading white treatment of blacks and black responses back, openly racist attitudes, as well as black lifestyles. In that way, it was the first important white-authored nonfiction book which helped to usher in the civil rights movement. And it is unfortunate that the well-intentioned but weak, at times melodramatic, film script and unrealistic makeup job hindered the presentation of some potentially good subject matter for thought and discussion in its day.
But the film does faithfully reproduce moments from Griffin’s book in the same casual episodic way, as in Here-is-what-Griffin-ran-into-as-he-moved-from-town-to town. Somewhat jarringly, the same shocking racist information from the book about black sexuality is presented–what Griffin himself was exposed to from several whites. But overall, the book’s variety of white responses to blacks and vice-versa are retained also–a realistic blend of attitudes with some unexpected good, positive ones, too.
How bad was it in the South then? The film and book both capture the times and details well. Up here in Canada, we really had no idea what was happening in this region then, let alone with natives and French Canadians. We could only read about discrimination in books like Griffin’s or catch some of the more dramatic confrontations later in the civil rights and Martin Luther King era third-hand on the tube. Eventually we ‘got the news’ too, and one brave Canadian filmmaker, Norman Jewison, took a film crew and Sidney Poitier (who himself felt very endangered) to the South to make the seminal In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 Best Picture.
So ironically, warts and all, the less-successful film of Black Like Me remains an interesting historical document which basically did not lie and revealed how prejudiced whites were, particularly in the Southern states. Often these days, people act and think that there is only the present and that equal rights has always been around, or that political correctness is the be-all, end-all, and no other true views from the past matter, count, or are needed.
But context is always important and always part of the Big Picture. Things used to be different. There were changes. A led to B led to C. The full story. Which includes the politically incorrect past as well, sometimes by necessity, or for the simple fact of facts and truth. Black Like Me may not be pretty or easy to watch, but it did happen and it was very true once upon a time, which still makes it special and unique reading or viewing
Back in 1972 A.D., Griffin’s book was on the Alberta ELA curriculum and that is when I first encountered it. It generally went over very well with a mix of small town, air force, and native kids in the Cold Lake area then. It definitely showed different lifestyles and attitudes than anything teacher and students there had experienced.
There is a long-standing urban myth that Griffin died later in life from the treatments he endured. That is an ‘urban myth’; he died in mid-age of complications from heart attacks and finally diabetes.
Another recommended book I also had on hand in the classroom was 1969’s Soul Sister by Grace Halsell which presented the experiences of a white woman’s experiences as a black, parallel to Griffin’s quest. Any girls who read the book commented favorably on it as well.
I am also sure there are some teachers out there who miss those good old days when one could teach and read freely without having to worry about the obsessive, limiting strait-jacket of political correctness which limits what young people today can study. Another age when the powers-that-be respected young people more to make their own autonomous judgements in response to what they read and viewed. Another age before political correctness morphed into absurd, unnecessary censorship.
A note on the bonus DVD which comes with the movie: It is a documentary on Griffin’s truly amazing life. At the age of 6, he left Texas for Paris to go to school on his own. There, he later helped escaping WWII Jewish child refugees on the run from the Nazis, transporting them to the French coast via an ambulance he used from his workplace at a mentally ill institution. Amazingly, he ended up working solo during the war for the U.S. military on southwest Pacific islands where he gained new respect of native peoples and was later ‘blown up’ by Japanese planes. Gradually he started to lose his eyesight completely. He came back home to live with his parents, learned Braille, married, had a family, farmed on his own, and mysteriously regained his vision. He became a writer and decided on the Black Like Me journalistic adventure which became a book and a movie. He became an excellent photographer and pursued spiritual adventures via Gregorian chants and monks, which he had initiated back in Paris. from his many interesting, challenging experiences, Griffin concluded that all people were basically the same and deserving of compassion. This documentary gives greater context behind his famous book and is a well-made, modest depiction of his amazing life journey.