Black Man Leaving: Revisiting Classic Works on Race Relations

Black Man Leaving: Revisiting Classic Works on Race Relations

The recent protests, increased racial tension and possible empowerment through Black Lives Matter that has played out on the streets of American cities as well as parts of Europe and the UK is subject matter for writers of fiction and the screen. There has already been an almost immediate shift in trying to ‘erase’ many problematic TV shows and Hollywood films from circulation and an obvious next step would be the quick production and promotion of films and/or narrative fiction that offers a different racial perspective and/or a less stereotyped approach to hierarchical relationships both within police forces, emigrant communities and rural areas of the American South. The remarkable thing is that there are several works from half a century ago that succinctly do exactly this: the films In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Anglo-Canadian Director Norman Jewison and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) by German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the 1962 book A Different Drummer by radical African-American writer William Melvin Kelley all offer a brutally honest glimpse at both the potential for change and the strange and complex psychology against the backdrop of the arrival/departure of the ‘black man’.

The New Hollywood

‘The New Hollywood’ is a period of roughly a decade that was influenced by the French New Wave directors and saw the rise of young filmmakers coming out of film schools (as opposed to the industry) with content depicting brutally naturalistic shows of violence (coupled with a relaxed censorship code) alongside a more complex approach to character relationships. The film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is often cited as the start of this period but another film released around the same time is also highly significant; In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Norman Jewison (b. 1926) remains a hallmark for its poignant depiction of small town Southern racism and its cascading repercussions. A black police officer from Philadelphia named Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier) is passing through Mississippi when he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation (he is a suspect at the beginning) which intertwines his life with local police Chief Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger) and the wider lifestyle and attitudes of the town.

The colors by legendary Hollywood cinematographer Haskell Wexler (1922-2015) are sumptuous- carefully crafted shots create a striking swiftness of image and story and several scenes at night or early morning with saturated blues and neon signs include complimentary lighting of the African American character Tibbs alongside the white townspeople or police force. Much of the film is shot on location and portrays a gritty landscape of small-town Mississippi with a main-street, industrial waste, poor shanty houses and an all-night diner alongside cotton fields on the outskirts of town. The viewer is reminded of a not so distant past of slavery through a striking point-of-view shot with no dialogue of Tibbs looking through the window of Gillespie’s police car at the cotton-pickers followed by the frightening tranquility of the plantation owner’s estate. One of the main themes that proves intriguing and long-lasting is the inability of the white town to either accept Tibbs as an equal or paradoxically to let him leave. The town (and the police) are afraid of their own racist instincts (as well as the power of big business) and the film masterfully navigates this complex relationship- first Chief Gillespie tries to convince Tibbs to stay, then he tries to run him out of town and finally Tibbs himself (after initially wanting to leave) resolves to stay and solve the murder. The white town both vilifies and needs the Northern black policeman (who is a homicide specialist) and he in turn is both repulsed and tempted by the need to do everything- protect himself, investigate the murder with limited assistance and hand-deliver the correct suspect; Chief Gillespie (brilliantly acted by Steiger) even has a line that comments on this scenario early in the film. Much of the uncensored verbal language along with razor-sharp body language reflects the reality of the time and combines with an intense approach to character that feels naturalistic and a long way from the sanitized movie relationships of recent Hollywood.

German Auteur

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) has long been a staple of any film history class I have taught; it touches on numerous themes such as isolation and racism and brilliantly encapsulates the exaggerated melodrama of the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) and the broader issues of the New German Cinema movement of the 1970’s. Fassbinder was extremely prolific (he made close to 50 feature films in a decade and a half) and worked with the same close circle of theatre actors for a number of years; he would get the financing for his next few projects while shooting another and was often involved in all phases of production.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul the camera lingers on actors for such long periods of time that the audience can feel uncomfortable; this stretching of a performance to an extreme alongside spatial distance framed through doorways, tables or corridors carefully coincides with the storyline of the black Moroccan immigrant Ali and his unlikely relationship and marriage with the elderly, haggard-looking white German woman Emmi. They are ridiculed by everyone with over-the-top dramatics played out by Emmi’s grown sons, daughter and son-in-law, the local shop-owner(s) and landlord as well as her gossipy cleaner co-workers. After they leave Munich for a short vacation they return to find that peoples’ attitudes have changed in a superficial (but acceptable) way- when living/working with a relative, customer, tenant or co-worker it’s better to find some common ground and/or target a newer more vulnerable person (which is played out when Emmi’s co-workers start to gossip about the new ‘Polish’ hire). Ali is shunned with obvious racism (both visual and linguistic- which is eluded to in the title) from German society but is also silently ridiculed by his Moroccan friends and co-workers at the car garage where he works and begins to feel increasingly hemmed in by Emmi in her attempts to make the situation better by showing him off or commenting on his ‘foreigner mentality’.

The vacuum experienced by the characters who are outwardly racist but troubled enough to change (if only superficially) when Ali and Emmi leave and then return summarizes Fassbinder’s societal critique. The younger and more voluptuous German bartender silently expresses her jealousy against Emmi and Ali but later spends the night with him; later Ali has a near fatal collapse which forces Emmi (and others) to look beyond immediate impulses of societal hierarchy and yearn for the flawed life she had before. In many ways these characters participate in their own ‘victimization’ (which is a theme of critique in much of Fassbinder’s work) and the constant hypocrisy over power relationships related to race or age (class and gender are also seen in his other work) bring some of the worst attributes of human nature to the foreground.

Experiment in Prose

“Sure! What we need them for anyways? Look what’s happening in Mississippi or over in Alabama. We don’t have to worry about THAT no more…”

– A white character discussing what has happened in A Different Drummer

The New York literary scene of the 1950’s includes legendary authors such as African American writers Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison; the latter’s 1952 work Invisible Man provides suspense, politics and a glimpse into the life and minds of its characters both in the city and in the deep South, USA. A work published in 1962 offers an even more radical vision; A Different Drummer by Bronx raised William Melvin Kelley (1937-2017) is set in 1957 and fictionalizes a world where the entire African American population suddenly leaves the Southern state they are in. A Different Drummer strikes a balance of clear, concise writing with an other-worldly tone and a stark minimalism. Style and content meet in the brilliant premise of telling the story from the perspective of the remaining white townspeople; they grapple as to why the character of farmer Tucker Caliban would destroy his crops and livestock as well as his house and how and why the rest of the black population would follow him out of the State. These are free men and women who choose to depart and simply leave… the book offers more questions than answers and provides an intimacy to a variety of flawed local characters (who are white) with the stoic backdrop of the monumental exodus written like a silent film scene.

Kelley was interested in experimenting with prose and his subsequent books play with the use of phonetic language and become almost code-like for long periods of time; Kelley himself left the USA in 1963 and briefly lived in Europe before settling in Jamaica for a decade (where he converted to Judaism). Upon returning to the USA he continued to write and eventually taught at Sarah Lawrence College but didn’t publish a book for the last 40 plus years of his life and remains an intriguing figure who seems to have foretold much of the pathos behind race-relations with his first and most famous novel. The mass exodus of the black people from the fictional town of Sutton creates alarm, fear and anxiety even though there is no violence, riots or battles; black property is simply abandoned and there seems to be a freedom to this act of leaving in solidarity even when (or maybe because) the future is unknown. The inner monologues of some white characters who remain in the town raise some economic questions such as who will provide the labor and work the land? But more important are the many philosophical questions… why did they leave and why are we not pleased that they have left?

The Power of Leaving

The portrayal of characters that both fight the system and work within it (Tibbs- In the Heat of the Night) or completely reject the rules laid out (Caliban and the African-Americans- A Different Drummer) reminds the contemporary viewer of the relevance of that time and place (1960’s Southern USA and the civil rights movement) while the hypocrisy of social mores and overt racism or ageism (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) expose the similarities with today. There are numerous examples of the small psychological ‘victories’ that the oppressed can project onto their oppressor; apartheid South Africa of the recent past and occupied Palestine of the present are examples of the power that solidarity has on the behavior of the oppressor. The refusal to destroy ones’ own community or accept a marginalized existence (blacks in South Africa) or to disperse and disappear (Palestine) eventually holds the oppressor to account for what they have done- even if the struggle spans decades or centuries.

All of these stories present race relations not as a conflict but as a complex game that has rules which are both obeyed and broken and through which the ultimate statement can be to threaten to leave (In the Heat of the Night), almost die (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) or simply vanish from the place (A Different Drummer) without explanation.

Kaz Rahman July 1st, 2020

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