James Whitmore In Black Like Me
James Whitmore died the other day. I knew who he was. He was the guy that did the Miracle Grow commercials a few years back. But like a lot of old school actors his best work was done back in the day. I just had to pick my brain to think of what he did that was a little more notable. For a brief minute, I had confused Mr. Whitmore with Spencer Tracey of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, the story of a black man integrating into a white world. A quick check of the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) site quickly corrected me. While Mr. Tracey was playing Matt Drayton whose daughter brings home a black fiancé in what can be described as a comedy of circumstance with a lighthearted take on relations between blacks and whites, Black Like Me was a serious peek at the ugly underbelly of typical conditions of race relations in America.
Black Like Me was the story of John Horton, a white man who wanted to experience what life in America was like for a typical black man. John Horton takes medical treatments to darken his skin and leaves home to travel across the country. In one of his early visits after his conversion, he re-encounters a black shoe shine man, Burt Wilson, who waited on him while he was white. Mr. Wilson befriends Mr. Horton. He laughs at him but decides to help him and shows him how to act like a black man and the importance of knowing his place so that he can fit more easily into the American culture as an African American. It is through Mr. Wilson that Mr. Horton learns how to properly shine shoes and earn a living as a unskilled laborer. He learns that as a black man, he’d better learn to put up with being talked down to and disrespected because many of his encounters with white people will be degrading and disturbing. Mr. Wilson warns his new friend that he has no idea what he has gotten himself into.
As a hitchhiker, John meets several white men who refer to black men and women in disparaging ways. Throughout the movie, he is harassed and persecuted by whites without reason or provocation. In one of his stops, he finds himself on a park bench sitting by a white woman. A white man walks by and tells him he’d better find another place to sit. Even though he had a college degree, menial jobs were all that he could find. While people from the white community were treating him like crap, people in the black community would help him. In one scene when he couldn’t find any place to spend the night, a black man invites him to his home and shares his house.
Eventually, Mr. Horton meets Frank Newcomb whose son is arrested for participating in a civil rights demonstration. Mr. Horton tells his story about being a white man passing for a black man to Mr. Newcomb’s son Tom. Tom becomes enraged. Tom feels that the plight of the black man could be served better if Mr. Horton was to use his white status to help black people.
This movie came out almost fifty years ago. It was developed on a shoe string, independent film budget. It was based on the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin who was the white man who took medical treatments to darken his skin. Unfortunately, Mr. Whitmore looked more like Al Jolson in black face than an actual black man. But nevertheless, Mr. Whitmore and the other actors give a credible performance that allows the viewer to surrender disbelief and embrace the story as it is intended.
Three years later Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is released to critical acclaim with a strong cast featuring Mr. Tracey, Katherine Hepburn, and Sidney Poitier. These days, more people are more apt to define race relations in the idealistic terms of the story of the young black doctor at the very pinnacle of his field trying to assimilate into a somewhat prestigious socially liberal white family. How many black men can relate to such a position? Exponentially more black people are more familiar with the gritty world of race relations revealed in Black Like Me.
But all too often many of us don’t want to see that harsh reality. Too many people want to dismiss the negative that we see all around us for the single shining exception that is supposed to give us hope that better times are ahead. Despite the fact that millions of black people exist in jails, unemployment, under employment, poor health, poor education, poor legal representation, and the like, we’d rather point to the achievements of a single black President as the natural way of things and proof that things are getting better. We would rather delude ourselves that a lone exception is more than enough to counter the vast majority of black people who know a totally different reality.