A Civil Rights–Era Interracial Romance Strains Against Respectability


One Potato, Two Potato, Larry Peerce’s honorably intentioned, rarely revived film about interracial marriage, was released in New York on July 29, 1964, a week before the discovery in Mississippi of the bodies of murdered civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney. Though their slaughter typified the grim, grotesque reality of apartheid-era America, that year was also buoyed by some hopeful events: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law; Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Another kind of prize — much less significant but still culturally momentous — was given out in ’64: Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, for his performance in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field, in which he stars as a handyman who builds a chapel for a group of Mitteleuropean nuns. That character, like many others played by Poitier during the Sixties, exhibits what James Baldwin called a “fundamental impulse to decency that…reassures the white audience.” Frequently cast as a paragon of moral rectitude, Poitier would play exceptionally saintly heroes in two films in which his love object is a white woman: Guy Green’s A Patch of Blue (1965) and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Both big-studio productions, these movies are weighed down by an excess of decorousness and caution — traits that One Potato, Two Potato, made independently, sought to break away from, sometimes succeeding. Co-written by Raphael Hayes and Orville H. Hampton (the latter of whom would script 1975’s Friday Foster, the last in Pam Grier’s long run of blaxploitation triumphs), OPTP was shot in the too-perfectly-named town of Painesville, Ohio, here known as “Howard.” The film opens in a courtroom; Judge Powell (Harry Bellaver), the overseeing magistrate,
proclaims, largely for the audience’s benefit, “The case is extraordinary because of the complex social issues involved,” declamatory dialogue that isn’t limited in Peerce’s film solely to the halls of justice.

Seated at the table before the judge are Julie (Barbara Barrie), a white woman, and her husband, Frank (Bernie Hamilton), a black man. Across from them is Joe (Richard Mulligan), a white man and Julie’s ex-spouse, who is demanding full custody of the grade-school daughter, Ellen (Marti Mericka), he abandoned when she was a toddler. The towheaded tomboy has been living quite happily with her mom, stepdad, and baby brother on the farm run by Frank’s parents, William (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl) and Martha (Vinnette Carroll). How this ménage, extraordinary for being not only interracial but also multigenerational and class discordant, came to be — and Joe’s insistence on destroying it — is told in flashback, sometimes punctuated by the judge’s off-screen narration.

“It was an ordinary, everyday, uncomplicated relationship,” the justice says at one point, describing the growing closeness between co-workers Julie and Frank; the best scenes in OPTP are those that bear out this assessment. Running into each other after exiting from the same movie one night, the two colleagues share a sidewalk stroll during which the depth of their loneliness is revealed in touching details, with Julie doing most of the talking (“I like to read all kinds of biographies”) and Frank avidly listening. During another one of these evening promenades, as Julie is relaying to Frank the details of her failed marriage to Joe, a cop interrupts their platonic intimacy with a grotesque assumption — a raw, jolting moment that lays bare the poisonous thinking that dominated the country then (venom, of course, that is still enfeebling our ailing republic).

But after Frank and Julie wed — over the initial protests of his parents, objections that are quickly overcome — and Joe returns from his long absence, the characters become constructs delivering position papers; pieties begin to clutter the film. Growing ever vaguer, too, is Frank, who seems always to be attired in an immaculately pressed suit and tie, the same outfit that Poitier’s characters would so often wear to immediately signal their “respectability.” While we do witness Frank explode in cathartic fury — taking in a western alone at a drive-in, he shouts “Kill ‘im! Kill that white bastard!” to the Native American overpowering a cowboy onscreen — the moment is so ham-handed that all its intended potency is drained.

For all of my carping, I can’t deny the importance, even the bravery, of what Peerce was trying to accomplish. His film did, after all, play in theaters when anti-miscegenation laws were still on the books in several states, statutes not struck down until the Loving v. Virginia decision of 1967, the subject of Jeff Nichols’s Loving, which will be released in two weeks. But it’s instructive to compare OPTP with another American independent film from 1964, Michael Roemer’s Nothing but a Man, which examines much more powerfully the iniquities of racism through their impact on a newlywed couple. Though Roemer’s film isn’t about an interracial union — the spouses are black — both husband and wife are shrewdly observed characters in a film untainted by sentimentality, a quality that American films about race, then and now, fall back on.

One Potato, Two Potato
Directed by Larry Peerce
Rialto Pictures
Metrograph, October 21–27