It’s Not Simply Black and White: Onscreen mixed-race romances (sort of) grow up

ScreenerBlog

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, was not the first film to deal with an interracial love story, though it was the first to present “the issue” in the starkest terms. To wit: An exemplary son-in-law—a well-mannered, well-spoken doctor with a stellar future who happens to be black—sparks feelings of profound equivocation for the girl’s parents, otherwise the most fair-minded, tolerance-spewing champions one can imagine. The good doctor refusing to marry her at all without their blessing only makes it worse. He is a paradigm of virtue but still an African-American, and his race defines him.  

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Stanley Kramer film was a controversial groundbreaker. The brilliant casting didn’t hurt: Sidney Poitier as the romantic lead, Dr. John Prentice, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as old-time liberals Matt and Christina Drayton, whose daughter Joey (Hepburn’s real-life niece Katharine Houghton) is engaged to Prentice.

Naturally, it all ends happily enough (Did I mention it’s a comedy?), with Tracy delivering a long, very long speech asserting that love is what matters and while the young couple will face obstacles in a bigoted world, they must get married. To fly in the face of their love is a violation and morally wrong.

The film’s treatment of race relations is clearly dated. Not coincidentally, its depiction of women is also thesis-worthy, let alone its portrait of a black housekeeper (Isabel Sanford, years before “The Jeffersons”) who embodies a host of racial, gender and class stereotypes. Enraged and horrified at the prospect of Joey marrying a black man, she sputters, “Civil Rights are one thing. But this is something else.”

Still, it was a bellwether, landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and winning its screenwriter William Rose a statuette.

***

Mixed-race couples are no longer shocking. Indeed, we’ve turned 180 degrees. Their presence onscreen is de rigueur. On TV think “Scandal,” “Suits,” “The Mindy Project” “Jane the Virgin.” If they’re not the leads. they’re routinely seen as part of the background cast.

That’s true in film too, with dozens of examples from Rachel Getting Married to Infinitely Polar Bear to Away We Go to the upcoming horror flick/social satire Get Out. Black and white is only one configuration among interracial couples but still carries the heaviest baggage.

To prove just how far we’ve come, in 2005 Kramer’s film was reimagined in Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s Guess Who. This time, it’s an upper-crust black family asked to accept the daughter’s (Zoe Saldana) white boyfriend Simon (Ashton Kutcher), who, as an example of stereotype reversal, is the son of a single mom.

Guess Who resides in sitcom land complete with a blustering, buffoonish dad, Percy Jones (painted in broad strokes by Bernie Mac) up against Simon, the most nerdy and awkward of love interests. The original movie has evolved—or devolved, depending on viewpoint—into a full-blown farcical conflict between the two men.

Racial difference is the big bone of contention, but it doesn’t take long to fade into the background as other issues move front and center. Closing on a sentimental note, Percy and Simon bond, finding themselves in similarly troubled relationships with the women in their lives. In this whitewashed universe (pun intended), gender-identity politics trump race. The problem is it doesn’t, not in the real world anyway.

From the filmmakers’ standpoint, it’s a tough call to be sure, as race continues to be an emotionally/culturally laden topic, even as we pretend we’re too advanced to notice a racially mixed couple.

It’s no coincidence that two new films dealing with black-white marriages, Loving and A United Kingdom, are historical biopics focusing on, respectively, the “illegal” marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in 1958 Virginia and the international crises erupting in the wake of Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana marrying a white Brit in the late 1940s. If films take place in a bygone era, the creative team is forced to acknowledge race.

Not so in contemporary stories, and its absence is often the elephant in the room. It may also leave an artistic gap.

Consider The Bodyguard (1992), a one-dimensional drama featuring Kevin Costner playing, well, a bodyguard for a freewheeling pop-music star (badly acted by Whitney Houston, which doesn’t help). The predictable love story might have been a whole lot more compelling if the race card had some role in its telling: the super-rich, mercurial black girl up against the working-stiff white cop. (Clearly, class and gender are informing too.)  

In Five Nights in Maine, a sparsely told 2016 indie,an Atlanta-based African-American widower, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), visits his estranged white mother-in-law Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) in rural Maine. A brittle, bitter woman dying from terminal cancer, she had an unsettled relationship with her late daughter, though there’s no evidence that Fiona’s black husband was the issue. The interracial marriage is never mentioned.

Turning to Sherwin, she snaps, “She wanted to be special, so special. You made her special. You could have been anyone.” It’s a powerful snippet hinting at racial distaste on her part. Is she saying you could have been any black man, thus implying his racial otherness was the real turn-on? It’s arguably the subtext. A little clarification—or dare I say it, a little expository backstory—would have sharpened its focus. Either way, he is the outsider who has been assaulted, and that brings up a central theme that has barely evolved in half a century.

The good—sometimes borderline-saintly—African-American male lead (romantically involved with a white woman) is typical, though he was more pronounced in movies of the ’60s, when presenting the black man as super-benign—as a way of responding to the culture’s underlying fear and dislike—was a political imperative.

There was Dr. Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and also Gordon Rolfe (again Poitier) in A Patch of Blue (1965), a gentle and compassionate office worker who falls in love with a blind Caucasian girl (Elizabeth Hartman), rescues her from her white-trash family, and refuses to marry her despite her proclamations of love for him. Given the social climate, a mixed-race marriage would be terrible for her, he says. He’s almost a martyr, standing in stark moral contrast to the malign redneck universe that surrounds him.

Who can forget the final gut-wrenching moments in One Potato, Two Potato (1964), where a white child is forcibly removed from her loving family—that includes a black stepfather and racially mixed half-brother—because her biological father has sued for custody, asserting that his home is superior if for no other reason than it’s white, and the judge has reluctantly agreed?

In many films, the black romantic lead is on a higher social, economic and educational level than his white girlfriend; once again A Patch of Blue comes to mind and 26 years down the pike there’s Jungle Fever (1991), with Wesley Snipes playing an architect opposite Annabella Sciorra as his blue collar Italian-American secretary.

Despite the social/political progress that has been achieved in racial parity during the last 50 years, filmmakers remain super-cautious, suggesting just how deeply ingrained and resistant to revision the old stereotypes are in our collective psyche.

Still, a shift has occurred with contemporary elements thrown into the cinematic mix, from feminism to global politics. New social types and relationships have entered the public imagination.

If we’re talking about a true story set in the past, historical events are filtered through the distorting lens of memory, coupled with a 21st-century sensibility along with the personal views and aesthetics of the filmmakers.

***

Loosely inspired by the 2011 documentary The Loving Story, Jeff Nichols’ Loving recounts the misery endured by Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a lower-working-class couple based in rural Virginia, who in 1958 eloped in Washington, D.C. and upon returning to Virginia were arrested and jailed on the grounds that their marriage was illegal. In many states, including Virginia, miscegenation laws were still intact. Forced to abandon their friends and family, they were exiled from the state for 25 years. Ultimately they took their case to the Supreme Court, where they won in 1967, setting the stage for the ongoing battle over the Defense of Marriage Act in connection with same-sex marriage.

The film is extraordinary on several fronts, most pointedly in its depiction of a poor, uneducated white man in love with a black woman. It’s not coincidental that he grew up among African-Americans; it seems commonplace for him to be drawn to a black woman.

“I love my wife,” he says blankly, belying confusion, fear, bottled-up rage and an inability to express his thoughts any further. Edgerton gives a brilliant performance of an inarticulate man who voices little between long pauses and rarely makes eye contact with anyone.

Mildred (played with understated dignity by Negga) shows more savvy, charm and social grace than Richard. To what degree the depiction is accurate or a reflection of Nichols’ politics is hard to gauge.

Women are often drawn as superior to their male counterparts, dating all the way back to “The Honeymooners” (of course, that doesn’t apply to Gracie or Lucy). Fast-forward half a century: In the wake of the women’s movement coupled with Civil Rights—and the ever-present fear of appearing sexist or racist—it’s an odds-on favorite that a black woman onscreen will be far sharper than her white (or black) male lover. Her movie image—like that of the black man—is the antidote to her status in the real world. Even in an idiotic sex comedy like Made in America (1993),about a messed-up sperm donation, Whoopi Goldberg’s intellectual Sarah towers over Ted Danson’s loutish, self-aggrandizing Hal.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. Mildred and Richard were real people battling the powers-that-be, not each other. Indeed, in Nichols’ spin they’re a unified front constantly responding to exploitive outside forces: posing at home for magazine photographer Gray Villet (Michael Shannon), who has invaded their space, or playing grateful clients to ACLU newcomer Bernie Cohen (comedian Nick Kroll) andfellow counsel Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass),who take their case as a career-boosting opportunity for themselves. As shown here, the two lawyers have little moral conviction.

These are questionable directorial choices. The attorneys are comic Jewish stereotypes, insecure, go-getting neurotics with greased-down hair, while Mildred and Richard are virtually affectless much of the time. Understandably, they would be guarded, but their conflict-free relationship is not fully credible either. It’s equally difficult to fathom their almost matter-of-fact reactions to winning their case. It’s anti-climactic, certainly not compelling drama. Nichols’ vision gets in the way of an otherwise wonderful film.

***

You cannot talk about interracial love stories onscreen without citing Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (2001), the most stunning example of a black-white love story precisely because it’s so completely devoid of self-conscious calculation about race or gender or anything else.

All the characters—their understanding of themselves, their place in the world and each other—emerge from hell, with racism as only one expression of eternal damnation among the living. The title, an old English term for a condemned man’s last night on Earth, couldn’t be more on target.

A gritty and at moments unbearable movie to watch, it’s a riveting exploration of intertwined lives among the most brutalized and  brutalizing fictional figures on film. Milo Addica and Will Rokos’ subtle, complex and beautifully written script often feels like a Raymond Carver or William Trevor short story.

Set in rural Georgia in the early 1990s, it tells the unlikely love story that evolves between Hank, a racist prison warden (a superlative performance by Billy Bob Thornton) and the wretchedly entrapped Leticia (Halle Berry’s Oscar win), a heavy-drinking, underemployed graveyard-shift waitress who is facing eviction. She is an abusive single mom of a morbidly obese child, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), whose father (Sean Combs) is on death row awaiting execution. Hank is a cool-headed, unrepentant participant in that execution (a graphically depicted electrocution). Neither Hank nor Leticia is aware of that connection until the end.

What makes this film so original, among other elements, is the carefully drawn journey each character takes individually; their shared time is almost secondary. There are terrifically telling details throughout that hint at the characters’ humanity without ever sentimentalizing them or detracting from their cruelty—from Hanks’ love of chocolate ice cream eaten with plastic spoons to Leticia’s joy at purchasing bright orange kitchen curtains on credit.

Hank and Leticia come together largely by accident. Her desperation and need is more defining than his, though their love story (of sorts) is a departure for him as well. Every other relationship in his life is grotesque, including his regular encounters with a hooker whom he shares with his father and son.

Little is revealed between the lovers. Theirs is not a story of forgiveness or redemption. The end is ambivalently open-ended, expectation-defying and totally truthful.

***

By contrast, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is relentlessly schematic, but powerful too. Racial hate, fear and self-loathing define the film’s mangled and distorted universe.

The love story between Flipper (Snipes), an architect, and his secretary Angie Tucci (Sciorra) is noteworthy precisely because it embodies no love at all or even mutual attraction. It’s based solely on deep-seated curiosity about and desire for sexual relations with the “other” race, which has no identity outside of its respective stereotypes.

As a white woman, Angie is axiomatically more exciting than Flipper’s beautiful black wife Drew (Lonette McKee) and her proximity makes an affair with her a no-brainer. Flipper is not a laudable figure. He’s disloyal to his wife and abusing his position of power in relationship to Angie.

Donning an executive’s hat, he’s not all that different from his stereotypical white counterpart. In fact, it’s okay now to cast an African-American as a boss, celebrity or mega-sports star who is altogether wretched and an exploiter of women (black and white). O.J. greased the wheels on this one.

Still, Angie is a willing partner. She’s as fascinated by Flipper’s blackness—with its myth of sexual potency—as he is by her whiteness. He becomes all the more alluring thanks to her Bensonhurst family, for whom no one is more forbidden than a black man.

Once their families get wind of their affair (both are surrounded by Iago-like friends who can’t keep their mouths shut), Angie’s father (Frank Vincent) beats her savagely, and in an explosively self-demeaning display Drew hurls Flipper’s possessions out the window onto the street while screaming her head off. As a wife, a black wife, she’s been doubly betrayed.

Exiled from their communities, Flipper and Angie are thrown together by circumstance though, contrary to expectation, their feelings for each other never evolve, as there was nothing there to begin with short of preoccupation with the “other” race.

But that’s fascinating too, as they’re expressing with the most convoluted twists and turns the views of their race-obsessed subcultures. Existing in a time warp, Angie’s world is insular and patriarchal. Daughters are housemaids to their fathers and brothers and remain virgins until they’re married. Outsiders, especially African-Americans, are viewed with open distaste and interracial conflict is resolved violently.

The film is dedicated to the memory of Yusuf K. Hawkins, an African-American youngster who was chased by a group of bat-wielding white boys and shot to death in Howard Beach, Queens, in 1989. His crime was dating a white girl.

Race is the informing theme in Flipper’s family too, despite its upper-middle-class status. Flipper’s father, a retired minister (Ossie Davis), talks about race and race relations incessantly and when Angie comes for dinner he can’t help but lecture her on its history. At the same time, and from the same family, Flipper’s brother (Samuel L. Jackson) is an irredeemable drug addict, shaped by an impoverished inner-city world that he cannot escape.

But no one is more color-conscious than Drew and her black women friends, speaking candidly about the few black men available to them. Most are in jail or on drugs and if they’re doing well, they’re drawn to lighter-skinned black women or best of all white women. It’s no fluke that Drew herself is racially mixed (olive-skinned with European features) and thus able to land a husband as accomplished as Flipper.

Lee also explores to comic effect the African-American woman’s fetish with skin tone in School Daze. A black man displays racial pride by choosing a very dark-skinned woman as his girlfriend.None of his films is subtle or comfortable to watch, least of all Jungle Fever, but it’s riveting throughout.

***

Like her 2013 film Belle, Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom dramatizes the interplay of politics and personal life, offering a highly entertaining but oversimplified account. Belle is a fictionalized biopic of a racially mixed 18th-century woman struggling to forge her own identity while playing a part in the abolitionist movement.

Based on Susan Williams’ 2006 book Colour Bar, A United Kingdom recounts the marriage of Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of Bechuanaland (later to be known as Botswana)and the British-born Caucasian Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), formerly a clerk in a London office. Throughout, they’re battling family, local, national and international forces in order to be together.

Oyelowo gives a multi-leveled performance as an intensely moral man who loves both his wife and country, seeing no reason why they should be mutually exclusive. Ruth is a less defined character, but Pike is convincingly solemn, resolute and at times appropriately awkward. Unsure what’s expected of her as the prince’s wife, she stiffly waves at the crowd in a gesture inspired by the Queen’s regal greeting.

For starters, their relationship is not fully accounted for. We’re told repeatedly that they’re deeply in love and eventually we accept it, though it’s never clear what drew them together to begin with.

They meet—eyes locking across a crowded room—at a racially integrated London Mission Society mixer where Sereste is espousing various political views and holding court among (one assumes) fellow graduate students. He’s in London to complete his studies before returning to Botswana, a British protectorate, to assume the helm.

At their fateful first meeting, Ruth does not know that he’s a king-in-waiting. But he is an intellectual, a black intellectual. Is that what turns her on? From his point of view, she’s an attractive white woman though not especially brainy. Is her whiteness the draw or is there something else, and if so what? Who knows?  

Within short order, he reveals his true identity and proposes marriage, warning her that life will be difficult. In the throes of romance, she responds they will take it “moment to moment together.”

What transpires—and it may or may not be an accurate—feels like an overstated dramatic setup. Ruth’s conservative father (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and Sereste’s traditional African uncle (Vusi Kunene), who has been serving as regent while his nephew completes his studies, threaten to disown them.

Local British thugs assail them with racial epithets on the street and Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a slimy, self-serving British diplomat, explains to Ruth that she can’t marry Sereste because Botswana’s neighbor South Africa has initiated apartheid—a word and concept with which she is totally unfamiliar.

The British have a political and economic stake (natural assets to be mined, including diamonds) in appeasing South Africa and maintaining the white minority as its rulers. The interracial marriage is equally unpopular with Botswana’s tribal leaders, who don’t want a white queen at the helm. Facing endless obstacles, including an enforced separation initiated by the British government, Ruth and Sereste maintain their love for each other.

In the end, it all works out splendidly for them and Botswana. The latter becomes a democracy, thanks to Sereste, an idealist who is spurred to action as a result of the world’s venomous reaction to his marriage. Their love may have played a part in the country’s political evolution, but it’s questionable whether it was the defining factor. Still, as a love story, made all the more potent as an interracial love story, A United Kingdom is inspiring and packs an emotional wallop if you can divorce yourself from too much analysis.

***

Black-white love stories on film have taken quite a journey in half a century. However dated now, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner paved the way for the films that followed. Many stories are yet to be told, but the surface has been scratched, even dented. Thank you, Mr. Kramer, for starting the conversation.