147097057331968There is a parallel storyline that at first seems unrelated to LB Jones but eventually ties in involves the return to Somerset of Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto) who has come back to town to settle an old score…kill a policeman. Years earlier Sonny Boy witnessed the same policeman (Bumpas) brutally kill a black 13-year boy. Sonny boy now comes back for revenge. Which was unheard of in the sixties. Up to that point blacks were considered coon caricature which was one of the most degrading and insulting of all anti-Black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. The coon was portrayed as a lazy, easily frightened, inarticulate, good-for-nothing buffoon.  Although he often worked as a servant, was not happy with his status. He was, simply, too lazy or too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position.

After L.B.’s death, Sonny Boy finds Bumpas out in the fields working a baling tractor. Sonny Boy approaches him quickly and unceremoniously pushes him into the twisting blades. This one act that William Wyler brought to the screen shattered the image of weak kneed blacks on film forever…The coon caricature was born during American slavery and died on screen with Yaphet Kotto’s powerful performance. He was simply a powerful black man killing a bigoted white man. Blacks have been treated as second-class citizens since the inception of this country. Forcibly brought here as slaves to the white man, blacks have never been treated as completely equal to whites. Stereotypes of blacks as lazy, stupid, foolish, cowardly, submissive, irresponsible, childish, violent, sub-human, and animal-like, are rampant in today’s society. These degrading stereotypes are reinforced and enhanced by the negative portrayal of blacks in the media by performers as Stephin Fetchit, Mantan Morland, Willie Best. Black characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry

Yaphet Kotto’s performance of Sonny Bog Mosby ended the degrading stereotypes that were reinforced and enhanced by the negative portrayal of blacks in the media.

 

The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country, some of whom have never encountered black people, believe that the degrading stereotypes of blacks are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about blacks is determined by what they see in movies or on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague American thought as they did in the sixties but in another form, the media invented the Noble black which for a time extinguished negative images of blacks in the media, with this change blacks were regarded as second-class citizens struggling for dignity by such actors as Paul Robeson, James Edwards, Canada Lee and then finally Sidney Poitier.

Poitier, James Edwads, Canada Lee and a number of these men played leading black male actor of the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960s, also played roles that approximated the Uncle Tom ,stereotype, even though his characters were never one dimensional. These black actors did not play characters that were submissive, cheerful servants, but many of their characters were white-identified. In Edge of the City (Susskind & Ritt, 1957) Poitier sacrifices his life, and in The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958) Poitier sacrifices his freedom, for white males. Like the black servants of old, his characters worked to improve the lives of whites. In Lilies of the Field (Nelson, 1963) he helps refugee nuns build a chapel; in The Slender Thread (Alexander & Pollack, 1965) he works to help a suicidal woman; in A Patch of Blue (Berman & Green, 1965) he aids a young blind woman who does not know he is black; in To Sir With Love (Clavell, 1967) he tries to teach working class youth, almost all white, to value education. In the last, some of the students racially taunt him; eventually he loses his composure. Later, he berates himself for having displayed anger. Reluctance to fight back is reminiscent of earlier Tom portrayals, for example, Bill Robinson’s character in The Little Colonel, who stands patiently and silently as he is insulted by the white master. Bogle (1994) describes Poitier’s roles this way:

They were mild-mannered toms, throwbacks to the humanized Christian servants of the 1930s. When insulted or badgered, the Poitier character stood by and took it. He knew the white world meant him no

Poitier’s characters, like earlier Toms, were also denied sex lives. In many of his roles he has no wife or girlfriend, and, when he did have romantic relationships, they were drained of sexual tension and fulfillment. In A Raisin in the Sun (Gilbert, Rose, Susskind & Petrie, 1961) there are no romantic scenes with his black wife. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer, 1967) he only kisses his white fiance once, and the audience sees the kiss through a cabdriver’s rear view mirror.1 In A Patch of Blue he kisses the white romantic interest once, then sacrifices any amorous possibilities by arranging for her to leave for a school for the blind.

Poitier’s Toms are best described as “Enlightened Toms.” In many of his films he is the smartest, most articulate character — and, more importantly, the one who delves into the philosophical issues: egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and altruism. Moreover, he acts upon these philosophical musings. He is a paragon of saintly virtue, sacrificing for others, who, not coincidentally, are often white.

Morgan Freeman’s character, Hoke, in Driving Miss Daisy (Zanuck, Zanuck & Beresford, 1989) is reminiscent of Poitier’s Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. Neither Hoke nor Homer has a life apart from whites. We know little of either character’s experiences or hopes. They live to solve the problems of the white characters; and, of course, both are desexed. Although neither Hoke nor Homer Smith is a fully developed character, both are preferable to Big George in Fried Green Tomatoes (Avnet, Kemer & Avnet, 1991). Big George is a pliant, obedient, one-dimensional servant, a relic.

And then came Yaphet Kotto…and ended all of Hollywood’s sterotypes by just one act…cold bloodedly killing his white tormentor and the movie begins and ends with Kotto’s unreadable face,  leaving town on the same train he came in at the beginning of the film.