Some things you must always be unable to bear… Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame.
1949 was the year of the problem film. Problem meaning Hollywood for the first time took a hard look at the plight of African-Americans without stereotype or comic relief. Intruder in the Dust was one of those films. A daring attempt to give the public something they were not prepared or ready to see.
The American Dilemma
W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 accurately predicted the issue that had haunted the United States from the beginning was not going away. In fact it would take center stage.
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”
The relation of the races in the American melting pot has always been complex and extremely volatile.
No one can (or should) deny tremendous progress has been made but to achieve that progress meant acknowledging in some form or another a problem actually existed.
No where in the United States has this dilemma been more prominent than the American South. A land of great beauty and hospitality has also been the home of the most violent struggles. An effort to hold on to white supremacy combined with the obvious interconnections of the races makes for paradox at its most confounding.
As Long As There’s A Middle Road
I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.
Few were more representational of these contradictions than William Cuthbert Faulkner.
One of the greatest writers the world has ever known most of his works focus on life in Mississippi and with it also the complex relationship between Black and White.
One minute he was whistling Dixie with a fervor that would have made Wade Hampton proud:
But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi and against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes. . . .
“the premise being that the white people in the south, before the North or the Govt. or anybody else owe and must pay a responsibility to the negro.”
There is an unshakable truth that Faulkner returns to again and again. Slavery is America’s original sin and until it’s dealt with the land and the people are cursed.
When I was sixteen I spent the summer in Atlanta Georgia. There I went through a whole race riot. I saw sixteen Black men murdered by mobs. It made quite an impression.
Forty years after the Atlanta Riots, Clarence Brown had still not forgotten.
So when I read this story I didn’t walk I ran up to the front office at MGM.
The story was Intruder in The Dust and despite telling Brown he was crazy and predicting the movie would flop Louis B Mayer gave him the green light. Why the gloom and doom? According to Brown, Mayer didn’t think the public was ready for a Black man as the hero or in this case one suffering from unforgivable Blackness.
“Hernandez is the ‘new Negro’ in our movies. No longer do we have janitor and shoe shine boys. Now, we have a dignified, intelligent black man.”– Michael Curtiz,
Entertaining for Juano Hernandez was in many ways born of necessity. Orphaned early on the imposing Hernandez found himself doing a myriad of jobs just to make ends meet in Puerto Rico.
Eventually he made his way to the United States where he continued to hone his talents in a variety of venues including working with film director Oscar Micheaux.
But it was Broadway and in particular radio where he would have his greatest impact.
In the 1930s and 40s, Hernandez became one of the few black radio performers whose career wasn’t restricted to playing demeaning roles, though at least once he faced criticism for accepting an “Uncle Tom role” rejected by another actor.
When MGM offered him the role of Lucas Beauchamp, Hernandez was fully prepared to make the most of it.
One Way Or The Other
A Black farmer (Beauchamp) is accused of killing a White man. It falls to Chick Mallison and Miss Eunice Habersham to prove his innocence.
Here he turns in another excellent performance as Chick Mallison. A young man coming of age in Jefferson who obviously admires Beauchamp.
But Lucas does not play by the rules which for a Black man in Mississippi can be a deadly offense. When Chick falls into a cold pond during a hunting trip Beauchamp fishes him out and takes Chick back to the family home to get dry.
The Beauchamp’s show him their hospitality and Chick attempts to repay him by offering money. He has to. A White southerner cannot be indebted to a Black person in anyway. Lucas asks him, “What’s that for?” This enrages Chick. Lucas knows better.
In a vain effort to regain control Chick throws the money on the floor and orders Lucas to pick it up. But Lucas won’t break and after a stare down Chick looks away. He lost and the shame overtakes him.
Then there’s the scene. A mob forms in order to break Beauchamp out of jail so he can be lynched and burned.
Brown and cinematographer Robert Surtees show a crowd acting like they were at a carnival. The brother of the man Lucas is accused of killing grabs a canister and begins filling it with gasoline.
One man is literally drooling with anticipation as he watches. Since a lot of the extras were actual townspeople you couldn’t help but wonder how much authenticity they were bringing to their roles. It is a frightening moment.
And that scene is the whole point of Intruder In The Dust. Whether done by a White teenager or a mob, Beauchamp has to be put in his place.
A Black man who refuses to kowtow to society’s norms aka thumbing his nose at white superiority was not going to happen. Lucas must be taught and that education is a warning to anybody (Black) with the same mindset.
Maybe in brief moments here and there during Pre-Code but Michael Curtiz (who would direct Hernandez the following year in The Breaking Point) was on the money with his comment about the New Negro. Hernandez had broken thru the stereotypes of Hollywood to give a groundbreaking performance thanks to Faulkner, Clarence Brown and Ben Maddow‘s screenplay.
Elizabeth Patterson is very good as Eunice Habersham. Patterson was the son of a confederate soldier meaning the irony of fighting for a Black man was probably not lost on her. Patterson and Brown use her frailty and advanced years as a pillar of strength.
She’s the one who has to stand up (or sit down in this case) to the angry mob. A town that at this point in time doesn’t really want a moral center has got one and Patterson delivers.
Will Geer is dependable as always but David Brian as the lawyer gives an uneven performance in my opinion. There are times he’s really on point (particularly his seen with Hernandez toward the end of the movie). Other times it comes off as a little too forced and exaggerated in tone.
There is also an excellent cameo by Porter Hall. Hall was a wonderful character actor known for his comedic roles particularly as a member of Preston Sturges‘ stock company. But here it’s drama and Hall rises to the occasion.
In one scene as he and the sheriff wait in Beauchamp’s house to trap his son’s real killer, Hall looks at the photos of Lucas and his wife. You can see him trying to process the fact that Black people are real people.
He’s dealt with them but being in one of their houses is obviously a new experience for him and seeing that they’re might be more to them than his preconceived notions has struck a nerve. It’s a brilliant piece of subtle acting.
He Was Right
In the end Louis B Mayer’s prediction came true. Of the four race films made in Hollywood that year, Intruder in the Dust was the only one to flop at the box office. Pinky released by 20th Century Fox won the day but like Lost Boundaries the leads were played by White actors.
Intruder In The Dust offers none of the above. Lucas Beauchamp is a strong Black Man actually played by a Black guy who could care less what people think of him. He’s not looking for their acceptance or forgiveness. He is completely confident in who he is and what he stands for.
In the opening of the film when he’s being taken into custody there is no fear as the white mob gathers. His asking Chick to go get his lawyer uncle is not a plea it’s an order. Beauchamp is decades ahead of his time and in 1949 America few people of whatever color could wrap their minds around that.
Clarence Brown always believed that his movie was the best out of the four. William Faulkner who won the Nobel Prize the same year may have been prejudiced in his own favor as well. When asked his opinion on Intruder In The Dust, Faulkner said
“I’m not much of a moviegoer, but I did see that one. I thought it was a fine job. That Juano Hernández is a fine actor–and man, too.”