Thursday, January 28, 2016

Guess Who's Coming to Marriage

Film: One Potato, Two Potato
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are some movies that age well and play pretty much the same way now as they did when they were created. Other movies, particularly social issue movies, don’t always age that well. We look at something like Brokeback Mountain that was really special in 2005 would be a lot less so now. It wouldn’t be less of a movie, but the story itself would be much less of a conversation in a world where marriage equality has become much more normal in many places around the world. This is also the case with a film like One Potato, Two Potato, made almost hand-in-hand with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the United States. Since this is a film about the way races are treated in the U.S., that’s a nice little bit of history.

It’s worth noting that the virtually forgotten One Potato, Two Potato came out a solid three years before In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, two films that are regularly trotted out as moving the conversation forward. Why this film is forgotten may simply be a case of having less photogenic and personable stars. Specifically I mean that those two films feature Sidney Poitier and One Potato, Two Potato does not.

As any film with an important social issue at its heart should be, this is a very simple story. There’s not a lot of nuance here, because the idea is to put this issue under the harshest light possible. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner did this by making Sidney Poitier’s character nearly perfect and the rest of the characters socially liberal—the only possible exception they could have to him marrying their daughter was his race. One Potato, Two Potato functions in the same way, but a little bit differently.

Enter Julie Cullen (Barbara Barrie). Julie, with a young daughter, divorces her husband because he has left her years previous. Joe Cullen (Richard Mulligan in his first non-television credited role) left when their daughter Ellen (Marti Mericka )was still an infant and (keep this in mind) has had no contact with his daughter for years. In the ensuing years, Julie meets Frank Richards (Bernie Hamilton), an African-American who she works with. Over time, Julie and Frank realize that they are more than compatible and decide to get married. Pretty much everyone is against this idea aside from Julie, Frank, and Ellen.

In fact, some of the biggest resistance happens from Frank’s parents, William (Robert Earl Jones) and Martha (Vinnette Carroll). Martha is opposed to the marriage and to Julie moving in to the family home up to the point that Julie arrives with Ellen. This melts Martha’s heart and she accepts her new family members completely. William is opposed to everything until Julie and Frank have a son. Seeing his own grandson turns him around. But everybody else is still against our interracial couple. And when Joe returns and discovers his ex-wife has married a black man, he decides to sue for custody of Ellen.

You can see where this is going, right? I’m going to stop with the summary here, but there are really only a couple of places where this film can go—we can get a happy ending or a tragic one. Either of those can work for a film that wants to send the audience home with a message, so I’m not going to reveal how it ends up.

What the film does well, though, is demonstrate that racism and racist views are absolutely learned behavior. Ellen, who is six or seven in the bulk of the film, is naturally pulled into court as a part of the custody hearing. She is specifically asked about the differences between her and her baby brother, and she’s confused by any implied differences other than gender. It’s kind of a beautiful thing, and it’s also pretty realistic. I’ve seen this sort of view in my own kids in the past—kids don’t really notice differences like skin color until they’re taught to do so by someone else.

This is a solid film. It’s not really as well acted as it could be. Both Barbara Barrie and Bernie Hamilton are a little stiff in places, although both are decent in the roles. This really is less important than the roles themselves, though and the story as a whole. It’s not even the story that sells this, but the social issue at the heart of it. Keep in mind that when One Potato, Two Potato was current, miscegenation laws were still in effect in a sizable part of the United States, and interracial marriages were certainly frowned on just about everywhere else.

And that’s the problem here. We live in a world where the only people who get their garters in a twist over an interracial couple are the people you hope aren’t sitting at the same table you are at Thanksgiving. The people who are at the center of a film like One Potato, Two Potato are the people whose opinions have been marginalized (thankfully) throughout a substantial part of the world today. Sure, racism still exists, but seeing an interracial couple on television and in a movie today seems to be something barely worth a comment, and so the driving force behind One Potato, Two Potato has gone away.

It happens. The same thing will continue to happen. Twenty years from now, Brokeback Mountain will just be a tragic romance, not something noteworthy because the main characters have the same naughty bits. It’s progress, but it’s progress that makes a film like One Potato, Two Potato less relevant to the average film viewer. That’s too bad, because it’s worth remembering that at one time, this was reality.

Why to watch One Potato, Two Potato: It’s a hell of a story for 1964.
Why not to watch: Most people in today’s world will find the narrative thrust to be something without much controversy.

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