A gloomy vision of the possibility of decent relations between whites and blacks anywhere, including the South. Undertaker L.B. Jones, the richest black man in his county of Tennessee, is divorcing his wife for infidelity with a white policeman. Taking a stand against racism, he is greeted with a hostile bunch of Southern bigots and other various stereotypes. Written by Sterling Silliphant ("In the Heat of the Night"). Director William Wyler's final film. Written by
William Wyler had such a diverse and non-stereotypical career. He painted on a grand canvas with "Ben-Hur," "Funny Girl," and "The Big Country," romped about with fluff on "Roman Holiday" and "How To Steal A Million," and reined in on tight dramas like "Jezebel," "Detective Story," and "The Collector", all to name but a few. "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" was his last film, and its message is still powerful and taut. Here, Wyler reins in very tightly on a drama, placing his camera stock still in three-walled sets and allows the intensity to grow from the individuals coming undone within its frame.
Hollywood was just turning the corner in its presentation of dramatic material around 1970, with the revolutionary "The Graduate," "Bonnie & Clyde", and "Midnight Cowboy" already released, so Wyler's effort appears rooted to an earlier period in its presentation. Elmer Bernstein's music is bombastic and overly showy. The confining studios sets scream of the backlot environment "daring" pictures were then moving away from. And Wyler's static camera technique is a far cry from the fluid shots used by up 'n coming directors Penn, Nichols, Friedkin, and Wexler. But the overall tone and downbeat ending of "Jones" foreshadowed the de rigueur hard-edged storytelling that would make '70s pictures so vibrant.
Taking place in some jerkwater burg in Tennessee, the title character of L.B. Jones (played with dignified austerity by Roscoe Lee Browne) is a wealthy undertaker whose wife (the smoldering hussy embodied by Lola Falana) is practically rubbing his nose in her affair with a local cop. Jones wants to divorce her. The proceedings, if a courtroom action is necessary, would reveal her liaisons with the policeman, played by Anthony Zerbe, and Zerbe truly does not want his own wife to know of his infidelity. Thus, sets in motion the harrassment and tragedy of L.B.'s situation as only a town full of rednecks can perpetrate towards the threat of an intelligent, self-made African-American man.
Lee J. Cobb as the town's D.A. who always finds a way to help out the white folks, at the expense of blacks, walks a fine line of bigotry and self-discovery. It may be L.B.'s "liberation", but it's Cobb's character that will ultimately be put to a test. What's unique about this film is that he fails, miserably. Most movies made in the '80s and '90s about the racial plight of African-Americans, whether it be "Cry Freedom" or "Amistad" always have that knight in shining "white" armor that studios feel are needed to "help" the black man break the bonds of tyranny. The black character is never allowed to just gain freedom, discovery or triumph on the merits of his own strengths. This film has the guts to show L.B. take his "liberation" into his own hands, albeit with tragic results, and damns the white majority who are a long way from compassion and understanding.
The standout performance in the flick comes from Anthony Zerbe. If all you've seen are his scenery chewing in "Omega Man," his digit-dropping in "Papillon" or his head exploding in "License To Kill," check out his fully-fleshed out character of Willie Joe in this film. He embodies centuries of redneckdom in one person, portraying the self-inflated, unrepentent coward sheltered in police corruption so effectively that he masterfully overshadows the performances of everyone else onscreen. Unfortunately, Yaphet Kotto as a vengeful out of town visitor is given very little to do. And Barbara Hershey and Lee Majors barely have enough motivation to fill in their sketchy roles as Cobb's daughter and her altruistic lawyer husband.
If you can stand a little datedness to the narrative (and Elmer Bernstein's horrible score), take a look at this unflinching glimpse at an era of bigotry we thought was eradicated...but it's obviously not. My rating **1/2 out of ****.
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