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    Jun 18, 2020

    Black Loves Matter

    The history of movies that break the color barrier in the bedroom is, sadly, a short one.

    Mainstream cinemas didn’t get movies about black people falling in love with each other until the 1954 musical Carmen Jones (no coincidence that the man who got it made was Hollywood powerhouse Otto Preminger who had a long running affair with its star, Dorothy Dandridge).

    Not until the recent releases of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk have black loves mattered at awards time or at the box office. There’s still a long way to go but here are five movies that introduced colorless love to Main Street cinemas.

    Pinky (1949)

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    This breakthrough movie, directed by Elia Kazan, would’ve been a bigger breakthrough had the director gotten his way and cast Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge in the lead. Instead, the studio made him choose white actress Jeanne Crain to play the light-skinned black woman who returns to her black Southern roots after passing for white at a nursing college in the north. Even with Crain in the lead, the relationship her character has with a white doctor was too much for Southern theatre owners. Interestingly, an exhibitor in Marshall, Texas dared to book it and was fined. He took his appeal to the Supreme Court which announced the landmark ruling that gave movies full rights of expression under the First Amendment – which, until then, they did not have.

    Island in the Sun (1957)

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    It took eight more years to get a black-white kiss on screen and the racists howled when Harry Belafonte laid one on Joan Fontaine. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who as president of Twentieth Century Fox, had dared to produce Pinky (though he also blocked the casting of a black actress in the lead), assured any theatres fined for showing this film that he would personally pay their fines. Zanuck invited controversy - having also made Gentleman’s Agreement, an expose’ on anti-Semitism – and took a chance, knowing he would have trouble in the South. Sure enough, few Southern cinemas booked it and Joan Fontaine got hate mail and death threats from the KKK. However, it was the film’s northern debut – in Minneapolis – that drew the biggest protests. Yeah, the same Minneapolis.

    A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)

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    Featuring the kiss that was never seen below the Mason-Dixon, this Cinderella story, playing off the perhaps too-obvious riff that love is blind, was shocking in many ways. Elizabeth Hartman’s character, a blind white teenager, lives with a prostitute mother and an alcoholic wastrel of a grandfather and rarely leaves her dingy apartment. Then, one day, she goes to the neighbourhood park and meets kind, educated Sidney Poitier. The social impact of this film included its setting against the growing Civil Rights movement and the table-turning circumstances of the black and white protagonists. The love story is poignant and chaste. Even so, two scenes in which they kiss had to be cut from the versions that showed in the South.

    GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967)

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    At a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in a third of American states, director Stanley Kramer had an uphill battle to convince the studio, Columbia Pictures, this movie had an audience. For once, the studio marketing mavens were wrong and the film was a hit in the North and South. Still, it was a risky venture with the white Southern audience considered a write-off from the start and white liberal moviegoers liable to be offended by a plot that spun around the hypocrisy that the “Negro” should have his rights but not the right to marry your daughter. Still, love did conquer all and above all it was a story about love conquering racial prejudice. Just before the end of production, the Supreme Court struck down all anti-miscegenation laws in the case of Loving vs. Virginia (made into a movie in 2016).

    JUNGLE FEVER (1991)

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    Was it really barely twenty years ago that a major movie finally tackled issues of black-white love with all the complexity of emotions and biases on both sides of the racial divide? Yeah it was and, of course, Spike Lee was the guy to do it. His own complex feelings about his father marrying a white woman shortly after his mother died are blended into the melange of prejudices presented here and Lee gives them all a fair appraisal. He dedicated the film to Yusef Hawkins, a young black man killed by racist thugs in Brooklyn who suspected him of being involved with a white girl from the neighbourhood. Interestingly, Spike’s latest movie, Da Five Bloods, touches on an element of Vietnam history that’s much ignored: black soldiers who left mixed race children behind. If it’s tough being a half-white child in racially rigid Vietnam, it’s doubly so being a half-black child. Proof that bigotry knows no borders when it comes to black love.

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