Beyond appearances, not race

Black Like Me a powerful launch to Blue Sunshine’s Black History Month line-up

In 1959, John Howard Griffin medically darkened his skin to live and experience society in the American Deep South as a black man. He recorded his experiences and thoughts in a series of articles for the magazine Sepia, and his 188-page journal served as the backbone for his 1961 book Black Like Me.  Three years later, director Carl Lerner adapted Griffin’s story to film, which screened at the Blue Sunshine film center last Saturday as part of Montreal’s Black History Month.
Kier-La Janisse, one of the owners of Blue Sunshine, introduced the film, emphasizing the differences between the book and movie. She stated that in the film, “[the main character] would get angry when he was treated badly, when in reality, that would not have been tolerated.” It is hard to imagine such a project as Griffin’s being undertaken today, because contemporary opinion holds that such outward racism in society no longer exist.   North American society likes to believe that black-white relations have corrected themselves since the 1960s, and that racism is a thing of the past.
Indeed, today racism is regarded as socially unacceptable, and there are certainly implements in place to defend against overt acts of racial prejudice. But racism is pervasive: in slurs, in the criminal justice system, in the job market. While the limits placed on black people due to their race have decreased over the years, other evidence of racism still exists in North America.  “Austin…is still split geographically between the parts of town where the whites…and the blacks live,” said Dave Bertrand, co-owner of Blue Sunshine, when asked about the relevance of this film to contemporary society. In the Deep South, especially Atlanta, he noted, “Racism…is hard, prevalent, and real.”
The difference now is that there aren’t many individuals who, like Griffin, feel the need to tackle the root of this prejudice, to report on it, and to actively pursue a better world. Griffin famously said, after his journey through the Deep South, “Now I know what it feels like to be black.” As many black people he met pointed out, Griffin did not – could not – understand that life and all of its nuances after only a few weeks, but his effort to understand the black experience was bold in an era when racial discrimination was so thoroughly embedded in American society. No longer do we live in a world where race relations are under such scrutiny as to propel a journalist to undertake this task. Today’s world is one in which subtler forms of racism are overshadowed by more visible conflicts, such as the Niqab issue in Quebec, or Israel-Palestine relations. Consequently, in North America we celebrate Black History in February as if the battle for racial equality has already been won.
Black Like Me offers a valuable reminder of the extreme racism of recent decades, and the importance of maintaining a critical attitude toward patterns of discrimination on any level.  The film describes a range of encounters, from the violent to the frightening to the kind, that illustrate the many forms of racism that Griffin experienced. The relevance of this film lies primarily in this ability to highlight the scale on which racism can take place, evoking disgust and frustration in the viewer.
The rest of Blue Sunshine’s line-up for Black History Month promises to provide a broader image of black culture in America. Such events include screenings of Nina Simone’s live show from 1976, and the 1972 cult thriller Stigma. These showings, though lighter in content, complement and complete the image of Civil Rights-era black experience. Attending is perhaps a way in which we, like Griffin, can pursue greater cultural understanding.