Political Film Society - Newsletter #148 - November 10, 2002



November 10, 2002


 

WHITE WOMEN BREAK THROUGH THE COLOR LINE IN THE 1940S & 1950S IN TWO FILMS
Women's liberation followed Black liberation in the 1960s, and White women played a role in the latter. Two recent films, The Rising Place and Far from Heaven connect us with the origins of the role of White women in breaking through the color line.

Many American films depict the South in a very bad light, so a more balanced cinematic presentation may tend to be heartwarming. The Rising Place, directed by Tom Rice and based on the novel by David Armstrong, falls into the latter category. The film centers on Emily ("Millie") Hodge (played by Laurel Holloman as a young woman, by Alice Drummond as a dying woman), from her courageous stand to protest bigotry in 1945 until her death, told with flashbacks and flashforwards. The heart of the film is about the deaths of two fine African Americans in Hamilton, Mississippi. During World War II, a Black man took a job while Eddie Scruggs (played by Scott Openshaw), a White man, went off to the war; he proved to be an excellent worker. When Eddie returns from the war, he importunes Will because he does not get the job back and then nearly bludgeons him to death. Since Eddie's father is the town mayor and a candidate for senator, he is not prosecuted. When Wilma Watson (played by Elise Neal), a Black schoolteacher, decides to organize a protest about the injustice that includes marking out the name of the senatorial candidate on posters, Eddie confronts her belligerently. Backing up on a porch to avoid him, she falls through a loose railing to the ground, where her head hits a stone and she dies. Millie then appears, and Eddie runs away. Millie decides to testify in a trial conducted in Jackson, the state capitol, about the apparent murder, and Eddie convicts himself through an outburst in court. However, Millie is blackballed in town, not only because of her testimony in court but also because she became pregnant out of wedlock (the baby is taken away from her at birth for adoption), so her father buys her a house some distance from the town, and her indiscretions are hushed up. Millie, however, has a habit of writing eloquent letters to her promiscuous pilot boyfriend Harry Devening (played by Jackson Walker), who dies in the war, and the letters are returned to her. One day a gentleman stops by her place while traveling from nearby Memphis. In his role as her boyfriend's commanding officer, he read the letters in Europe and feels compelled to compliment her for her good deeds in bringing about justice. His visit prompts her to rethink her reclusive existence and thus became the "rising place" in her life. She then becomes a successful schoolteacher, loved by all in town. Some years later, when Millie is feeble and cared for by her sister, her niece Virginia Wilder (played by Frances Fisher) arrives in town to celebrate Christmas with the family, discovers the letters, and informs Millie on her deathbed how much she admires her courage and graciousness. What is clear in the plot is that women maintain what is often called the Southern way of life through courtesy and decency, while White men either engage in disreputable deeds or fear the opprobrium of other men. White women lack racist prejudice in the film, associating with each other as best friends, while White men harbor maneuver to maintain dominance. Such a view of the South was previously seen, albeit more eloquently, in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Cookie's Fortune (1999).

More of the same is always welcome as the United States continues to deal, not always successfully, with institutional racism, North and South. MH

What could be more heavenly than a beautiful house surrounded by trees resplendent with autumn leaves, a happily married couple, and two adorable children in 1957, when civility and courtesy were the norm in interpersonal relations? In Far from Heaven, written and directed by Todd Haynes, the principal characters discover private hells that were absent from the much ballyhooed Pleasantville (1998). Although women defer to men, and children obey orders from parents without question, the cracks in the orderly world of the 1950s are initially hidden from view. Frank Whitaker (played by Dennis Quaid) is an advertising agency executive in Hartford. His loving wife Cathy (played by Julianne Moore) has such a busy social and philanthropic schedule that she is interviewed and photographed for an issue in the local society column early in the film. While the interview is in progress, Cathy suddenly sees a strange Black man, Raymond Deagan (played by Dennis Haysbert) in her yard. When she goes outside to talk to him, he informs her that he has taken over the gardening job from his father, who recently died. The Supreme Court ordered school desegregation in 1954, and we see a clip from President Eisenhower's announcement in 1957 that he would not allow Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas to use the state national guard to block desegregation of Little Rock High School. Although in suburban Hartford Blacks, called "colored people," are servants, not equals, Cathy shows no prejudice and finds Deagan to be an excellent interlocutor, informing her about his daughter, his store, and the late Mrs. Deagan. The Whitakers also have a Black housemaid, Sybil (played by Viola Davis). Meanwhile, Frank appears to be an alcoholic. At the beginning of the film his wife must bail him out of jail for driving under the influence of alcohol, and the next morning, upon his arrival at work, he secretly pours a drink into his coffee. That evening he informs Cathy that he must work late and instead goes to a gay bar for a drink, and in due course she finds her husband kissing another man late at the office. Although Frank promises to get a cure for his inexplicable compulsion, including both psychiatry and a second honeymoon with Cathy in Miami, Frank finds an attractive young man on the trip who persuades him to give up his marriage so that he can have a life together with his boyfriend. Meanwhile, Cathy allows Deagan to drive her to a nursery and to a restaurant frequented by Blacks, but a White woman at a nearby carwash discovers her being accompanied by Deagan, and soon suburban telephones are ringing off the hook, Sybil's daughter is hit by a rock after school, and rocks are thrown at windows by Black people into Deanna's house. The couple has a divorce, and Deagan leaves town for Baltimore. But Frank and his lover may break up, and Cathy may pursue Deagan as the races desegregate more quickly in the 1960s. Far from Heaven shows that individual human proclivities to be human proceeded faster than the general recognition of the need for a more diverse society, a point that is nothing new. The film suggests that we really would like to know how American society got from 1957 to 2002, when gays are increasingly being accorded rights, and marriages between Whites and Blacks no longer raise eyebrows. The Far from Heaven soap opera would be much more interesting if there were a sequel. MH