Forgotten Hollywood – Black Representation in Film Noir
The heyday of Film Noir was in the 1940s and 50s in the post-WWII period. The films characterized by black and white photography, stylishly shot, voiceovers, flashbacks, mostly based on hard-boiled crime fiction depicted flawed characters that encompassed detectives, losers, grifters, femmes fatales. The moniker Film Noir was coined by a French critic, Nino Frank in 1946 – ‘black film,’ meaning bleak film.
The emergence of three-dimensional Black performers in the noirs of this period is worth noting – there were no Black filmmakers making these films with rare exceptions like Harry Belafonte who produced a few, and no all-Black casts. Studios were financing films with racial subjects and pivotal Black characters albeit on low budgets because of limited audience appeal and the near-certainty that they would not be shown in the South.
The 1950 No Way Out marked the screen debut of Sidney Poitier, handpicked by director Joseph Mankiewicz to play the part of a doctor, Luther Brooks, whose treatment of two white criminal brothers (played by Richard Widmark and Dick Paxton) leads to race riots. Poitier plays the first Black doctor at a county hospital whose diagnosis of brain damage to one of the robbers causes him to perform a spinal tap that kills the patient.
The surviving brother, Widmark, who shows his bigotry from the start, vows revenge. Brooks says to another doctor when the brother dies: “They’re not yelling at the doctor, they’re yelling at the nigger.”
According to the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, The First 100 Years 1893-1993, the screenwriter, Lesser Samuels, told the New York Times in 1950 that he wanted to show “the cancerous results of hatred.” His protagonist was initially white until he had a change of heart after hearing a story about a Black doctor.
While Twentieth Century Fox’s legal department was concerned about violence after the film was released, studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck wrote in a memo that the film had to “to conscientiously avoid propaganda, but at the same time the final result of our efforts should be a picture which is actually powerful propaganda against intolerance . . . Even in certain so-called white cities, such as Detroit, Omaha, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, we are apt to have the picture banned totally by the Police Commission. We already know that we will lose about 3,000 accounts in the South who will not play the picture under any circumstances.
Efforts were made by additional writers to write the Brooks character as a real person, not a stereotype. Writer Philip Yordan advised “going into Luther’s home. We will see real Negroes and how they live, as human beings. He will have a real brother, a real sister, a real father and mother–all human beings.”
Zanuck even caused the ending of the script to be changed so that Luther doesn’t die. He wrote “Luther, a wonderful character, is hideously slaughtered. If his death resulted in something, if something were accomplished either character-wise or otherwise, it would be different and I would accept it.”
He told a reporter when the film started shooting, “We want to tell a story of the Negro in a white man’s everyday world, rather than the Negro in the Negro’s world. We are going to show the kind of hate the Negro runs up against in his daily life, how he is afraid to walk on certain streets.” Poitier’s line to Widmark at the end of the film: “Don’t cry, white boy, you’re going to live,” is credited with making him a star despite his fourth billing.
Zanuck’s fears were borne out when the film was condemned by the National League of Decency and banned in several cities, the reason ostensibly the ‘fear of racial unrest.’ In cities where it was released, scenes of race riots were cut out before it was shown. The film was not released at all in the South. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Writing.
The 1951 film Native Son, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Black writer Richard Wright published in 1940, was even more controversial. The story deals with a 20-year-old Black man, Bigger Thomas, who commits two crimes, one inadvertently, and is sentenced to death.
Orson Welles produced and directed the stage play based on the book. Wright was offered $25,000 by MGM to film his story if he agreed to change the entire cast to white. Wright refused. Independent producer Ben Hecht’s offer to make the movie with “an oppressed minority white man” was also turned down by Wright.
Ultimately, with no other domestic offers, Wright made the movie in Argentina with French director Pierre Chenal with himself in the lead role after the star of the stage play Canada Lee was unavailable. He was 38 at the time.
13 minutes had to be cut out of the film before it passed the US censors. Scenes in which Bigger was in bed with a white woman were cut and all references to racism in the context of his behavior were completely omitted. The depiction of the prevailing racial animus and police antagonism towards Blacks was rejected.
The released version by Independent Classic Pictures was so incoherent with the cuts that it was no wonder the film tanked. It would be restored by the Library of Congress decades later.
Another noir based on a book was a much more successful film. Odds Against Tomorrow, produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, and directed by Robert Wise, was released in 1959. The young progressive Belafonte hired blacklisted Abraham Polonsky to write the screenplay; he used the name of a Black writer for his screen credit. (His credit would be restored in 1996 by the WGA.)
Belafonte stars as Johnny Ingram, a loving family man, and compulsive gambler who is manipulated into joining two white men played by Ed Begley and Robert Ryan, in a heist that goes badly wrong.
The undercurrent of racism is pervasive, Ryan’s character making full use of words like ‘piccaninny’ and the n-word in his overt hatred of Blacks in general and Ingram in particular. The film was shot in New York City and the Hudson River Valley, and the visual style is quintessential noir. Wise told his biographer, “I did something in Odds Against Tomorrow I’d been wanting to do in some pictures but hadn’t had the chance. I wanted a certain kind of mood in some sequences, such as the opening when Robert Ryan is walking down West Side Street…I used infra-red film. You have to be very careful with that because it turns green things white, and you can’t get too close on people’s faces. It does distort them but gives that wonderful quality—black skies with white clouds—and it changes the feeling and look of the scenes.”
Despite positive reviews, the film did not find an audience and did not make money.
Body and Soul, the 1947 film with the aforementioned Canada Lee shows him playing a boxer, Ben Chaplin, who trains John Garfield’s character, Charley Davis. The two become friends and treat each other as equals, such relationships heretofore never seen onscreen.
While Garfield is the lead, Lee’s screentime is substantial. Abraham Polonsky wrote this screenplay as well. The Breaking Point from 1957 shows another realistic Black-white friendship where John Garfield and Afro-Puerto Rican actor Juano Fernandez are partners on a fishing boat.
The film is directed by Michael Curtiz and is based on Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” Yet another film that portrays such an interracial friendship is Edge of the City also released that year, where Poitier and John Cassavetes are cast as stevedores who get embroiled in racial politics with tragic results. Poitier was billed as co-star, his first such billing, and paid $15,000. The film was directed by Martin Ritt, another director who was blacklisted. He was paid $10,000.
It got good notices, Time magazine writing that Poitier’s character “is not only the white man’s boss, but is his best friend, and is at all times his superior, possessing greater intelligence, courage, understanding, warmth and general adaptability.” It was not widely released in the South as many theatres refused to show it, and it did not make money.
Black women were shortchanged by the genre in that they did not lead films and were relegated to playing family members (Mildred Joanne Smith in No Way Out who plays Poitier’s wife) or chanteuses (Mauri Lynn in The Big Night (1951), but especially in these two films, the actors had key roles and were given a few good scenes.