(director: Melvin Van Peebles; screenwriter: Herman Raucher; cinematographer: W. Wallace Kelley; editor: Carl Kress; music: Melvin Van Peebles; cast: Godfrey Cambridge (Jeff Gerber), Estelle Parsons (Althea Gerber), Howard Caine (Mr. Townsend), D’Urville Martin (Bus Driver), Mantan Moreland (counterman), Kay Kimberley (Erica), Kay E. Kuter (Dr. Wainwright), Scott Garrett (Burton Gerber), Erin Moran (Janice Gerber), Kay Kimberley (Erica); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: R; producer: John B. Bennett; Columbia TriStar; 1970)
“Problem is it hammers home its point about racism being alive and well in America until it becomes annoyingly repetitive and preachy.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Melvin Van Peebles (“The Story of a Three-Day Pass”/”Don’t Play Us Cheap”/”Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song“)directs this provocative satirical fantasy filmabout a white man who gets to experience what it’s like to be black in racist America. Spike Lee refers to Peebles as “the Godfather of black films” for his effort in starting the blaxploitation movement with this flick. Herman Raucher, whose one-joke script shoots for broad comedy, hammers home its point about racism being alive and well in America until it becomes annoyingly repetitive and preachy.
Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is a bigoted (but not violent) and obnoxious loudmouth white insurance salesman, with a frustrated liberal wife named Althea (Estelle Parsons) and two children (Scott Garrett & Erin Moran). After using a sunlamp to get a tan, Gerber wakes up the next morning to discover he’s turned into a black man. What follows, after numerous showers and attempts to find an ointment to turn his skin white, is how the horrified suburbanite deals with this problem of actually turning into a person he always considered inferior. Althea shows her true colors and is repulsed by him, though the children take it calmly; his physician recommends he see a Negro doctor; his neighbors ring him up with threatening racist calls and are willing to pay his expenses to move, worried about their neighborhood being ruined and their houses going down in real-estate value; his startled boss (Howard Caine) at the insurance agency recovers from his initial shock and sees him getting new business opportunities with the blacks; and his sexy blonde Norwegian secretary Erica (Kay Kimberley), who never gave him a second thought, now finds him sexy.
When Gerber’s wife and children abandon him for her family home in Indianapolis, he thereby accepts being black and moves into a black neighborhood, loosens up his lifestyle and opens his own office.
The director doesn’t know when a good thing can be too much and keeps trying his garish clumsy bits until they don’t work anymore. Aside from the few laughs, it never makes much headway with its serious points except to show several incidents where there’s racial prejudice (Gerber is a boor as whitey, but a sympathetic figure as a black). There’s a black anger in this film that’s held in check by the banal sitcom comedy, but will come out in Peeble’s next much more provocative indie film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
The film is carried by Godfrey Cambridge’s motormouth salesman portrayal, his best ever film performance.
REVIEWED ON 6/21/2010 GRADE: B-