By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: White man becomes black.
Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is a bigoted white man who wakes up one morning having suddenly turned black. At first he thinks he’s spent too much time under the sun lamp, but after he and his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) try every concoction they can to return his skin back to its normal color and nothing works they finally accept the inevitable. Jeff’s lifestyle then changes in major ways. He loses his friends, his job and even forced to move out of his neighborhood giving him firsthand experience with how drastic the racial lines are.
The film was directed by Melvin Van Peeples who was at the front of the independent film movement during the ‘60s and doesn’t get enough credit for some of the groundbreaking films he made in that era, but this one remains his best and most famous work. While other films chose to present racial issues in very serious and dramatic ways this one takes the wacky comedy route and in a lot of ways becomes far more compelling. Some of the funniest moments comes when the characters discuss racial stereotypes, something filmmakers of today would shy away from for fear that they would be labeled racist, but here by bringing it all out-in-the-open it trusts that the viewer will see how silly and absurd they are without feeling the need to suppress anything.
Although Cambridge is never completely convincing as a white man despite an admirable job by the make-up department he still gives a splendidly engaging performance and without his presence this movie just wouldn’t have worked. Parsons is great as well with her character being quite supportive initially, but then eventually she turns her back on him like everyone else. Mantan Moreland is funny as a café waiter who laughs politely at all of Gerber’s dumb jokes when he is white, but gives him a completely different response once he turns black. Erin Moran can be spotted as the daughter and songwriter Paul Williams has a brief bit as a would-be employer.
There are moments where it shifts awkwardly between drama and comedy and there’s one scene where the action freezes completely and suddenly begins to display on-screen titles, which does nothing but take the viewer out of the story and should’ve been avoided. It also would’ve been nice had there been some explanation for why this all occurred. A potentially funny idea would’ve been having a scene where God decides to change Gerber into a black man to teach him a lesson and having the Almighty portrayed as being African American, which would’ve been considered quite edgy for the period and helped complement the already outrageous storyline.
Despite all the laughs the issues that it brings out are quite startling and not far from the truth, which makes this an integral part at revealing the problems that the black movement had during the early ‘70’s and still does and a film that deserves more critical praise than it’s been given.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: May 27, 1970
Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes
Director: Melvin Van Peeples
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube