Classic Hollywood films have examined the subject of racism many times. There are well-known race related Hollywood classics that everyone has seen a million times: “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), “In the Heat of The Night” (1967), etc.
Then there are the lesser-known classic films that have been just as extraordinary at examining the issues, and every bit as dramatic at delivering a resonating message.
“One Potato, Two Potato”(1964)
Barbara Barrie stars as a woman who falls in love with a man (Richard Mulligan) who dumps her when he finds out that she is pregnant. He offers her the usual nonsense about going off to get a job… with the promise that he will send for her and his child when he gets settled.
Fast-forward five or six years into the future, she is alone, and struggling, but she and her daughter are getting by. She meets and falls in love with a black man (Bernie Hamilton), and against all odds (remember, this is 1964), they decide to get married and eventually, they settle into a comfortable family lifestyle.
Problems arise when the girl’s father returns – he is incensed that his ex is allowing his child to be raised by a black man, so he takes her to court based on those terms. This movie is understated, yet amazing. I’m not quite sure why it is so underrated.
“The Crimson Kimono” (1959)
This little gem tells the tale of a murder mystery. The racist twist comes when the two detectives working the case, one white and the other Japanese American, fall in love with a key witness. The key witness is a white woman, and the white detective naturally assumes that she will reciprocate his feelings over his partners. The unthinkable happens, the woman falls in love with the Japanese American detective…
One of the most striking things about this video is the two captions on the face of the theatrical release poster. The poster shows a picture of the white girl in the arms of the Japanese detectives and it reads: “Yes, this beautiful American girl in the arms of this Japanese boy!” and further, “What was his Strange Appeal for American girls?” In a word, wow!
“Black like Me” (1964)
James Whitmore plays John Finley Horton, a white photojournalist. John was raised in the south and he gets the notion that he wants an “inside look” at racism. He adorns himself in blackface, and decides to travel and record people’s reactions to him. Along the way, he experiences blatant racism, and he cannot find a job despite his education.
“Black like Me” is based off a successful novel by the same name. The film version is widely considered a commercial failure, but there is something compelling about James Whitmore’s performance.
“The Boys from Brazil” (1978)
Gregory Peck portrays Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor who performed monstrous human experiments in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Dr. Mengele is alive and well, and he is about to resurrect der F¼hrer so that they can begin an indestructible Fourth Reich (or rekindle the Third Reich).
“The Boys from Brazil” was adapted from an Ira Levin novel. As to be expected, the Ira Levin novel is far more captivating than the film. However, the film is engrossing; it and its actors won three Academy Awards and one Golden Globe Award.
“Death by Hanging” (1968)
In this film, a Korean man, living in Japan, is sentenced to death by hanging. He survives the hanging, but he loses his memory during the gruesome process. Japanese law dictates that they cannot carry out his sentence if he has no memory of his crime(s). In order to rouse his memory, they crudely reenact his crimes with the heavy use of racist stereotypes held against Koreans.
The main point of the film is to caution against the death penalty, however; it also offers an interesting look at racial tensions between Japanese and Koreans. This film was not made in Hollywood, but it was made in Japan… but it still falls into the “Classic Hollywood” era. If you are interested in race relations, this film is a “must see.”