It's about our community and our spirituality!

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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 - Posted by | Black Community, Black People, Life, Racism, Thoughts


  1. A white woman asked my why can’t some blacks move past slavery? I asked her if she knew about Jim Crow Laws? She had not but said blacks need to let it go. I asked her had she ever been raped? She said no. I asked her how would she view men if she were raped as a teen and would that raped affect her today as an adult and would that raped affect how she would raise a daughter,and the way her daughter would raise her daughter.She said the rape would affect her.I had one last question for this woman. I asked her how would she respond to a man that told her,Why can’t you move past that rape,forget about it and move on. That white woman had no response for me.

    Comment by moderateblkmale | Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. Moderateblkmale,

    I applaud you for open her eyes to a situation for which she can’t understand. Yet, even though they don’t understand they continuously feel that they have to try and comment.

    She would be disgusted if she,some woman or some other white person were told to move past their trauma. They constantly want black people to move on so that they don’t have to face the results of their complacency.

    And since we are still being victimized it is senseless to ask someone to move past continual abuse.



    Comment by theblacksentinel | Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | Reply

  3. Yea, I had this discussion just last night in a graduate film course where as usual, it turned into a hall of 40+ students against a 5’1 black female. We were watching Imitation of Life and they did not like the truth that I presented. Either they wanted to ignore the extremely troublesome racial dimension or they wanted to downplay it as the past. This hostility and ignorance towards the lives and experiences of black people is alive and well.

    By the way was Black Like Me (which I saw a while back) an independent film?

    Comment by rhondacoca | Thursday, February 12, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback rhondacoca,

      According to the information I looked up on the IMDB database it was. Like a lot of things on the internet it could be wrong. But I must admit, even for an early sixties film it looked like it was done on a shoestring budget. But nevertheless, it has a good story to tell.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Thursday, February 12, 2009 | Reply

  4. Yea because Hollywood would have never produced it. Many of the films that speak about the truth in regards to race relations and real life depictions of black life and experience are often independent films.

    Comment by rhondacoca | Thursday, February 12, 2009 | Reply

    • Rhondacoca,

      That’s because Hollywood was too busy making films like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner where everything works out in the end.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Thursday, February 12, 2009 | Reply

  5. Hollywood seems to show blacks in a neegative light for some reason,in the 40’s,50’s it was maids and porters.70’s it was blaxplotation pimps,prostitutes,dope dealers,80’s it was violent kids at schools with white teacher saviors or sidekick black cop white cop stuff.Rarely are black depicted
    in a positive way ,unless it’s a “Jail to Yale” story which whites love.There is a movie called Drumline starring Nick Cannon which i felt somewhat accurately portrayed the heart and soul of black people.

    Comment by moderateblkmale | Friday, February 13, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback moderateblkmale,

      I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. There have been some really good black movies made and I’m not talking about those Color Purples or Soul Planes. I loved Buck and the Preacher, Boomerang, and Soul Food. I loved She’s Gotta Have It, Lackawanna Blues, Eve’s Bayou and the Hollywood Shuffle. Unfortunately, these kind of movies get lost in the constant shuffle of tripe from Hollywood.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Friday, February 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. I never saw the movie, but I do remember the book and the discussions in generated in my grade school or junior high — somewhere in that age range. The book probably did get a lot more notice in its time, and was on our required reading list. Full disclosure: I went to Catholic school.

    Comment by Betsy Hansel | Sunday, February 15, 2009 | Reply

  7. Thanks for the feedback Betsy Hansel,

    In the spirit of full disclosure I have to admit that I went to a Catholic school as well. It was only for one year. My mom and dad were able to afford to send three of the boys to a private Catholic school. But the next year tuition more than doubled and we had to go back to public school. I have to admit that it was one of the best educations I ever had.


    Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Sunday, February 15, 2009 | Reply

  8. I read the book and then saw the movie. The book was riveting and the movie was great. If I recall, the author couldn’t wait until the “color” wore off so he could return to being white again. For those of you who want blacks to move on, you don’t know the pain until you’ve experienced the hardships and uglinesses yourself. If I may use a metaphor I will; if you break a limb, you’ll be left with pain – arthritis although your limb has healed.

    Comment by Dorothy Barnes | Friday, March 20, 2009 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: