Racial equality in mainstream movies was slow in coming, but the prestige and acclaim of A Raisin in the Sun eased the way for more of it. Every major step counted — and as with the rest of the civil rights movement, there would be no going back:
One Potato, Two Potato (1964)
A sleeper in its day, this independently financed child-custody drama shot in Painesville, Ohio, has a hook that reflects still-archaic times. An ex-husband (Richard Mulligan, later of Soap and many other TV series) launches a hearing when his white former wife (Barbara Barrie) marries again to a black man (Bernie Hamilton). And it's not as if the couple has much of a fighting chance: Barack Obama may already have been born by this time, but it would be three more years before the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn (specifically) Virginia's state law forbidding interracial marriage. Though the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and Barrie tied for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, Potato has never had an official home release. The climactic courtroom scene, however, is available on YouTube.
Nothing But a Man (1964)
A black schoolteacher (played by the great jazz singer Abbey Lincoln) marries a laborer (Ivan Dixon) beneath her social class — an observation with which her consternated minister-father will be the first to concur. Short-fused, the husband has a tough time holding jobs, and gradually the marriage starts to fall apart. Written and directed by whites (respectively, Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young), Man is widely lauded as being indisputably authentic to the black experience — a happy example of a low-budget labor of love that made 10-best lists in its day still holding up strongly today. In 1993, it was selected to the National Film Registry. (Available on DVD from Newvideo for a $26.95 list price)
The Entire Sidney Poitier Superstar Oeuvre
By the time he filmed Raisin, Poitier had been in movies for more than a decade, had his Defiant Ones Oscar nomination and had even been top-billed in the screen version of Porgy and Bess. But by giving his all to Sun's charismatic role, he made the leap to a new screen plateau — and was subsequently asked to carry a huge burden of "firsts" or near firsts. Cast as a drifter/handyman helping nuns build a church in low-budget Lilies of the Field (1963, MGM/Fox, $14.98), Poitier became the first black performer to win a nonsupporting Oscar. He also got the call when pricier productions needed a co-equal to give necessary lip to Rod Steiger's white racist sheriff in In the Heat of the Night (1967, MGM/Fox, $14.98); to bop out on the dance floor with a comely white student in To Sir, With Love (1967, Sony, $14.94); and to marry into a prominent white family in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967, Sony, $14.94). With For Love of Ivy (1968, MGM/Fox, $14.94), Poitier evolved into a full-fledged romantic lead (a dapper presence opposite Abbey Lincoln). And for the record, Duel in Diablo (1966, MGM/Fox, $14.98) even added a Western to his bulging résumé.
The Learning Tree (1969)
Worth a lot of journalists' ink at the time and selected to the National Film Registry in 1989, famed photographer Gordon Parks' adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas marked the first time a black was allowed to direct a major studio production. Parks would soon make his big-screen mark with 1971's popular and influential Shaft — while 1976's never-on-video Leadbelly, about folk singer Huddie Ledbetter, is underrated and deserves a home release. (Available "on-demand" for $19.95 from WarnerArchive.com)
Next: The Landlord (1970) >>
The Landlord (1970)
Ahead of its time and deserving of its cult status, Hal Ashby's hip directorial debut cast Beau Bridges as a callow rich kid who buys a rundown Brooklyn tenement as an investment. But to the chagrin of his family, he soon becomes involved in the lives of black tenants who include the married black woman (Sun's Diana Sands) he eventually impregnates — hardly an everyday situation in Hollywood movies from four decades ago. Familiar black actor Bill Gunn penned the screenplay from a Kristin Hunter novel, and its race-relations satire still has bite. The movie wasn't exactly obscure at the time — Lee Grant got an Oscar nomination as Bridges' mother — but it has more currency today as the opening salvo from a director who went on to make, for starters, Harold and Maude, Shampoo and Coming Home. (From MGM and available "on-demand" for $19.98 from Amazon.com)
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