Carl Lerner had quite an impressive career as a film editor. His credits include 12 Angry Men (1957), The Fugitive Kind (1959), and even William Friedkin’s seminal 1970 picture, The Boys in the Band. But once, just once, he tried his hand at directing a fiction feature film. This resulted in 1964’s Black Like Me, which Lerner adapted from John Howard Griffin’s memoirs of the same name with the aid of his wife and co-writer, Gerda Lerner. Griffin’s story is an incredible one, and the film Lerner developed from his memoirs is no less fascinating.
In 1959, Griffin medically altered the color of his skin, dyed his hair, and wandered throughout the Jim Crow south as a black man! His exploits he recounted first for a magazine, and later in his memoir, Black Like Me. The film version of Griffin, John Horton, is played by actor James Whitmore, who would go on to co-star in Plant of the Apes (1968) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Whitmore does a great job with the material, even if the material tends toward the overly melodramatic at times, so much so that the message of some scenes gets lost in the lack of logic brought about by the film’s melodramatic trappings. For example, in scenes in which John, living as a black man, comes into contact with bigoted, white southerners, he has a tendency to verbally assault them after they voice their bigoted ideologies. While his backlash at their bigotry is not unwarranted and ultimately serves the themes of the film well, you can’t help but scrutinize this strategy according to realism. After all, were John to have told off as many white, bigoted southerners as he does here in real world 1959, he would have no doubt found himself severely beaten or worse. Regardless, the overall message of the film is a powerful one, and the picture stands as a fascinating artifact of 1960s cinema, especially since the story it relates is based on actual events.
Of course, I should mention that, in portraying the character, Whitmore doesn’t actually alter the color of his skin medically as Griffin did. Very few actors would undergo such a radical process for a single film, after all. Instead, Whitmore appears essentially in blackface. This is a problem, I grant you, but one that may be overlooked given the intentions of Griffin’s original project and Lerner’s well-intentioned efforts to bring his story to the screen. However, it’s likely that many viewers will be troubled by the use of blackface here, even though the technique is not in fact as dead today as it ought to be, which Billy Crystal proved at last year’s Academy Awards.
This little-seen cinematic gem from the height of the Civil Rights era is now available on DVD in a 2-disc edition from Video Service Corp., boasting a fully-restored transfer from the original film negative. Bonus features on this release include three vintage trailers for the film; an 11-page booklet containing an excerpt from Robert Bonazzi’s biography of Griffin, Reluctant Activist; and the 60-minute documentary, Uncommon Vision: The Life and Times of John Howard Griffin, to which the entirety of the second disc is devoted. This documentary, while admittedly something of a cheapy production dominated by archival footage, dramatizations, and the occasional still of Griffin, is in fact jam-packed with fascinating tidbits about the author’s life that significantly contribute to one’s appreciation of not only the man himself, but the film Black Like Me as well. This is an all-around terrific release, but I feel a warning about aspect ratios is warranted here. The DVD contains both the original 4×3 presentation of the film and a wholly unnecessary, cropped, 16×9 version. This wouldn’t be an issue at all, really, except that the DVD is automatically set to play the 16×9 version rather than the properly-formatted 4×3 version. Still, if you go in with this in mind, this is but a minor drawback at worst.