Title: Black Like Me
Starring: James Whitmore
Directed by: Carl Lerner, 1964
Black Like Me, is a true story that takes place in the mid 1960’s about a white man, named John Horton, who dies his skin black to see what it is like to be a black man living in the south. John is a reporter who plans on writing a series about his experiences for the magazine he works for.
John learns right away that he doesn’t know the first thing about being black and discovers that he must learn to think, dress, and act differently in order to survive. A black shoe shiner teaches him how to act around white people and the proper way to answer peculiar questions white people often tend to ask blacks. The viewer gets the idea that this experiment involves a lot more than John had previously thought and that he may be in over his head.
Most of the movie shows John traveling to various cities throughout the south to experience the discrimination that exists in the different cities. The discrimination was blatant and frequent; it occurred whenever he rode a bus, applied for a job, or looked for a place to stay for the night. These were all things he could take for granted as a white man, but not now with his black skin. He found that he could find solace in “his” people, as blacks were often helpful with finding him a place to stay, telling him what parts of town to stay away from, and showing him a good time. However, he also came across educated black people who looked down on other blacks saying things like, “I hate us, look at those ignorant fools.” These people always presumed John was a minister because of the educated way he spoke. John seemed to find these people the most ignorant and despicable of all, for rather than encouraging their people to become educated, they scoffed at them instead.
This movie depicts the privileges that white men held during this time in the south around every corner. They had all the political power, the money, the best jobs; they could look at whomever they wanted and could walk, sit, and eat at the place of their choice without having to worry about anyone bothering them. John learned all these lessons and more, including the disrespectful way white people talk to blacks. More often than not, when he got into a conversation with a white man, they would immediately ask him personal questions such as, “Have you ever been with a white woman, or has your wife ever slept with a white man to get a job?” This line of questioning infuriated John; he became cynical and distrusting of white men.
Black Like Me is a great movie both on the entertainment and educational level. It does a great job of portraying the disadvantages that blacks face. Even though it is dated a strong case could be made today that blacks still face these types of prejudice in their daily lives. The degree may be different, but there is no denying the connection.
Black Like Me does a great job of refraining from scapegoating and stereotyping minorities, while at the same time not making all white people out to look like bigots. There were several white characters in Black Like Me that show compassion for blacks. For example, the main character, John, risks his life to get a taste of what it is like to be black. Also, the editor of the magazine John worked for was responsible for publishing a magazine that stood up for the blacks’ civil rights and for his efforts had to deal with public criticism and threats. There was also a white man who picked up John when he was hitchhiking. Through his dialog with John it became quite apparent that he held no prejudice. Black Like Me was created for the purposes of awareness, education, and reflection. I feel it hit the bull’s eye in accomplishing these objectives.