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Black Like Me (1964)

 |  Drama  |  20 May 1964 (USA)
6.8
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Ratings: 6.8/10 from 400 users  
Reviews: 15 user | 10 critic

Based on the true story of a white reporter who, at the height of the civil-rights movement, temporarily darkened his skin so that he could experience the realities of a black man's life in the segregated South.

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Title: Black Like Me (1964)

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
...
John Finley Horton
...
...
Christopher
...
Thomas Newcomb
...
Robert Gerringer ...
Ed Saunders
...
Eli Carr
John Marriott ...
Hodges
Thelma Oliver ...
Georgie
Lenka Peterson ...
Lucy Horton (as Lenka Petersen)
P. Jay Sidney ...
Frank Newcomb (as P.J. Sidney)
Billie Allen ...
Vertell
Alan Bergmann ...
Charles Maynard
Stanley Brock ...
Salesman
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Storyline

Black Like Me is the true account of John Griffin's experiences when he passed as a black man. John Horton takes treatments to darken his skin and leaves his home in Texas to travel throughout the South. At one stop, Horton encounters a black shoe shine man, Burt Wilson, who befriends him and shows him how to "act right" so that he can fit more easily into the African American culture. It is through Wilson that Horton learns the art of shining shoes. Most of his encounters with whites are quite degrading and disturb him. As a hitchhiker, John meets several white men who refer to black men and women in disparaging ways which angers John. Throughout the movie, John is harassed and persecuted by whites without reason. In one of his many stops throughout the South, John finds himself on a park bench sitting by a white woman. A white man walks by and says, "You'd better find another place to sit." Even though he had a college degree, menial jobs were all that he could find. John meets ... Written by Broncine G. Carter

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"I changed the color of my skin... now I know what it feels like to be BLACK!" See more »

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20 May 1964 (USA)  »

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User Reviews

 
Flawed but important book; flawed but minor movie
25 June 2007 | by (Jersey City, New Jersey) – See all my reviews

Obviously hampered by a small "independent" budget and the casting of James Whitmore (a fine stage actor who, unlike the original author of the book, John Howard Griffin, simply cannot believably pass for a black man) in the lead, director Carl Lerner's screenplay (co-written with Gerda Lerner and an uncredited Paul Green) shuns Griffin's chronological story telling through dated diary entries and rearranges the events Griffin told so well to surprisingly LESS dramatic effect, but it gives a movingly honest portrayal of life in the South near the start of the long over-due civil rights movement.

The year this film was released my (white) family was transferred to a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. from a Virginia suburb of Washington D.C., and enroute we were stunned to see Klansmen in full regalia out on the interstate in North Carolina inspecting cars coming down from the north. It was just one of those things one had to live with at the time

  • like civil rights workers being murdered and their killers, when


caught, being acquitted by all white juries - but this film manages, despite honestly showing the unremitting low grade caution every black person had to live with, and the blatant racism of a few Southern whites, to also be fair to the majority which was merely oblivious to - and sometimes even quietly disapproving of the evil around them - who wouldn't intentionally hurt a black person.

This well meaning majority,unintentionally perpetuating what they saw as "something they couldn't do anything about," eventually came around
  • and the book helped, even if the movie went largely unseen.




One of the most effecting - but at the same time least persuasive - sections of the film comes late, when Whitmore/Griffin's character tries to justify his actions to a rising young black activist (excellently played to type by Al Freeman Jr.). As it turned out, Griffin's book actually did help in the long struggle for equality, bringing the reality of a shame to the attention of the rest of the nation which needed the reminder as it demanded and helped the South come into the 20th Century, but the film only touches on the screams of outrage from the South at the mirror being held up so honestly to something they did not wish to see.

This was only a few years after the "Stars and Bars" (the old Confederate Battle Flag alluded to so effectively in the opening credits of this film) was pointedly added to the Georgia state flag in protest to Federal Civil Rights legislation. Bigots (self identifying and otherwise) called it an emblem of "local pride and heritage" - realists saw it for what it was in the modern usage and timing: a symbol of hate, rebellion and intimidation.

Times really have changed radically in the 40+ years since this film was made, and today the movie is chiefly valuable as a document of what life was like in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia during Griffin's all too brief (one month) sojourn on the other side of the color barrier. The street scenes and home details are perfectly observed. As one who lived through the period, I can testify the film is not over stated politically or socially.

The movie BLACK LIKE ME does not portray "every white person as a bigot" (though in my years growing up in the South, I never met a bigot who self-identified as one), but it does show how a rotten few can intimidate a complacent majority on any issue. As we let some politicians play "the terror card" to suspend out liberties in the 21st Century, or the pseudo-"religious" and "guilt by association cards" to deny the right to marriage to significant parts of the population at a time when stable relationships are in society's best interest, it is perhaps a lesson worth remembering. The sad thing is that for the most part, the only people who will bother to watch this flawed but decent film are for the most part the ones who already know.


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