By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
After an exhausting day of movie-watching and hours of research at the Margaret Herrick Library, I was ready to head home around 11:00 after 3 evening movies. But when I learned that the final movie of the night was about a newspaper reporter who covers the story of why a black mother has a white child, I knew I had to stay and see just how they handled this.
The story begins as a newspaper reporter (Claire Trevor) is passing through a black neighborhood and she sees a policeman (played by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) leading the neighborhood children in a tap dance. Around comes a young girl who is significantly lighter than her friends. It comes to light that there has been discussion in the neighborhood that the girl, named Sunny, may not be her mother’s biological child. The newspaper reporter picks up the story and through a series of circumstances that would be deemed very racist, we learn that Sunny is NOT in fact her mother’s biological child and she had been left in her care by another couple (the woman was played by Sally Blane, best known as being the sister of Loretta Young), who come to claim her at the end. But the couple tells the woman who raised Sunny that she will not have to leave the child–she can come along and be the child’s nurse.
It usually takes a good deal for me to become offended and angry, and this movie did it for me. It is completely unapologetic about its racist attitudes and almost boasts of them. I will not justify its racism, nor will I extol this movie in any way. I will, however, provide some context.
The year was 1937, and this was segregated, discriminatory America both in real life and on film. In the movies, those of African-American heritage were portrayed almost exclusively as cooks, servants, or maids, and almost always in an unflattering light. In real life, Jim Crow laws were in effect and interracial relationships were illegal. Movies often shot just a few scenes featuring black actors in an otherwise white cast, because in order to be able to sell movie tickets in the American South, those parts would have to be removed before distribution in that area. In this regard, the producers of One Mile From Heaven probably thought they were being progressive–a mixed cast? In 1937? That was close to unheard of.
But the one step of progress the movie made in that regard was promptly nullified by two steps back…and back…and back. The beautiful, heartwrenching performance of Fredi Washington as the woman who raised Sunny is the highlight of the movie, and everything else is a mess. What is missing in this movie is any sort of empathy toward the woman who has raised this child from the time she was a baby. The movie almost goes out of its way to say, almost word-for-word, that the baby belongs in a white family. There are other movies like this, but this movie, to me, symbolizes just how big of a mess America was in during this time period.
When watching classic films, it is important to remember context and judge movies accordingly. Thankfully, attitudes have shifted considerably over the past 70, 80, 100 years. We are lucky to live in a society that can call out segregation, discrimination, and racism as inherently unfair, and to understand just how lucky we are, it is necessary to look to the past. The situations in One Mile From Heaven were, unfortunately, cruel realities.
At some point soon, I would like to make a larger post discussing racial issues in classic film. There is a lot to say, and it’s far too complicated for an impromptu article right in the middle of Cinecon. When I get back, stay tuned for my opinionated take on the issue and I will invite you, the reader, in for a discussion. As for this post, please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on the movie. Have you seen it? Would you see it?
See you tomorrow for more coverage!