Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Jeff Gerber is an average middle-class guy: he has two kids, lives in the suburbs, works in insurance, and has scheduled sex with his wife once a week.  He does have a few quirks; every morning, he leaves the house and, rather than pick up the bus nearby, essentially races it, on foot, to the last possible stop before downtown.  He's also loud and obnoxious, politically conservative, and, at the height of the civil rights unrest in the late 60s, causally racist, making what he thinks are jokey remarks about skin color to the few black people he sees, including a diner worker he runs into every day.  One morning, he wakes up as usual and starts his daily routine only to discover he has turned black—his wife enters the bathroom and shrieks, "There's a Negro in the shower!"  When he goes racing the bus, onlookers assume he's a thief; at work, the hot Swedish secretary is suddenly interested in him (she says she wants to see his "switchblade"), and his wife slowly grows more distant.  He assumes it's the fault of a defective sun lamp, but his doctor has no idea how it happened.  The only person in his life who doesn't seem horrified is his boss, who sees this as an opportunity to sell insurance to members of the growing black middle-class.  

This parable would have worked better as a TV show or a shorter film; though it's only 100 minutes, the last half drags by.  Godfrey Cambridge is very good in the lead role—his make-up as a white man in the first stretch is about as realistic as it could get without the use of digital effects (which didn't exist back then) or a different actor.  He doesn't quite look real, but that could be because I knew going in what Cambridge looked like; a viewer who didn't might have a different reaction.  He tries to bring some humanity to a role that is mostly intended to be symbolic, though his boorishness is done a little too well and even when he becomes more sympathetic, I couldn't really sympathize with him—maybe I wasn't supposed to.  It's a loud, bombastic performance which fits the role, but with the loud and shrill background score, it's a bit of overload and the movie just tired me out.  Estelle Parsons has the thankless role of the wife.  The other roles are mostly small, the only standouts being Mantan Moreland, a comic foil in 40s movies who has a couple of good scenes as the diner counterman, and D'Urville Martin as the bus driver—again, a small role, but the looks that pass across his face are effective.  The inner 60s flower-power child in me loved Estelle Parsons' psychedelic day-glo outfits.  [TCM]

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