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Raymond St. Jacques,
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.
Roscoe Lee Browne
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Melvin Van Peebles
Meiji U Tum'si
Jeff Gerber, an insurance agent, lives in a typical suburban neighborhood. He is also both racist and a fitness freak. But Jeff's bigoted world of taunting and harassing black people on and off the job is turned upside down when his skin inexplicably turns dark overnight. As Jeff tries to come to terms with this unexplained phenomenon that has befallen him, he soon becomes the victim himself when all of his friends and neighbors suddenly shun and harass him. This puts a strain on his marriage and loyal wife Althea, who begins to crack under the pressure. When all medical attempts to change his skin back to his former color fail, Jeff accepts that Kharma has caught up with him. Jeff tries to see the light of being a persecuted black man in this cruel and segregated world with the help of some of some new black friends, some of whom were people he, as a white man, taunted and harassed. Written by
Hey... ah, what happened to you man... uh, how come I never noticed you were colored before?
Because I was never colored before!
Oh, it happened just like that, huh?
Just like that!
Well, when you get back on the bus, just sit down and cool it - they don't love you, you know.
*Nobody* loves me - big deal!
Well just don't make any trouble.
Listen, I am *not* colored!
I know, I'm Spanish myself.
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Somewhat unevenly charts the journey of a successful, loud and bigoted insurance salesman's transition from loathed go-getter to loathed gone-goner. The early twist in the tale, allows an opportunity to see a strong central character face a new challenge. However, sadly, the storyline passes up the chance to see a fighter fighting and the direction becomes bogged down in a realisation that Gerber is beaten from the very moment he is plunged into what the film perceives as an underclass. A particular shame, therefore, as it declares race crossover to be a sentence as opposed to an alternative - there is no real optimism afforded to Gerber after the key white/black event and the film might have been stronger with such an exploration.
The film can be disturbing; but with slick,in your face, stateside put-downs 'The Watermelon Man' certainly enters a sensitive subject area head-first and allows the viewer to make an early judgement.
Whilst the storyline delivers meagre reward in terms of development, there is enough here to warrant a recommendation. Cambridge is outstanding as the hounder who becomes the hounded and the spine of the film is its humour bordering on the cheap for sure, but funny, often hilarious and providing the piece with an underlying energy. Racing the bus to work on foot, crudely separating the mugs from their money, learning to take hate on the chin its all here.
The strength of the final ceremony/scene smacks of eventual acceptance, a sense of belonging and possibly a new way forward; this will shock many as it is bitter-sweet, turning laughter into cold realism. Perhaps Van Peebles was taking the easy option? I think a sequel would have been a fitting reward.
I rate it highly, even after considering its faults.
UPDATED REVIEW: Today is 1 March 2005 and, courtesy of USPS, Amazon/Lasercorner.com and Travel Inn West 42nd St, NYC (long story ), I have now received the DVD of this film. I first saw it in the early 1980's and have been raving on about it ever since, saying to anybody that wanted to listen, that it was hysterically funny. It still cannot be purchased directly in England.
So today I watched it again, in the new high definition print. I want to amend my original review
The film made me feel guilty about how much I laughed when I first saw it. Yes, it still has great comic moments but there is so much more to it. Scene 11 'property values', sees Jeff Gerber's formerly pleasant neighbours confront him at home and they offer him $100,000 for him to move out of the area. This scene made me feel sickened. Firstly because it shows just how bad the racial situation was in America (surely it has improved since then??) and secondly because, on the first viewing all those years ago, I just didn't "get it" I saw an overall humour, where I should have seen the out and out bigotry, ignorance and sadness. After this pivotal scene Gerber tells his boss to stick his job and he moves on to get his own insurance business, settle into a community that he likes, reforms a long-distance dialogue with his blinkered wife and simply get on with being Jeff Gerber. In that respect my original review is seriously flawed as he is not completely beaten by race crossover at all in fact he makes it work for him and a lot of positives come out in the final analysis. It uplifted me.
Hey, enough of the deepness! It is still a great film to own, share and talk about, even after its flaws are considered. I just felt that I hadn't appreciated the finer points of it until now, many years later.
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