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Labor Action, 26 September 1949


Dan Shelton

Movie Review

Lost Boundaries Packs a Punch,
But Misses Fire as Social Study


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 39, 26 September 1949, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When Louis de Rochemont started the March of Time, he opened a new chapter in the story of the American film. In its first period, the March of Time provided a hard-hitting, documentary-style news reporting which conveyed, at its best, an inkling of the potency of the screen as a vehicle of social comment. Scenes taken on the spot replaced studio sets, non-professionals the place of actors, and the documentary approach invaded Hollywood. The subsequent deterioration of the March of Time into a superficial, glorified newsreel propagating the ideologies of the Luce empire, was accompanied by de Rochemont’s expansion into an independent feature production. House on 92nd Street, Boomerang continued the documentary approach, making it serve as a backdrop for above-average thrillers. His latest production, Lost Boundaries, is a bold attempt to deal with a social problem by utilizing not only the documentary technique, but also a true story.

Eight million Negroes are light-skinned enough to pass as whites. One of them, Scott Carter, discovers after his graduation from medical school that white hospitals will not hire him because he is a Negro, and Negro hospitals refuse him because he looks white. Odd jobs, poverty and the advice of friends finally convince him and his wife Marcia that they can “pass.” Settling in the town of Keenham, New Hampshire, they become respectable citizens, their children ignorant of their race. The dream is shattered when the Navy revokes Carter’s commission because of his color. The township turns against them; the son, unable to stand the truth, leaves home. It is the town preacher who provides the “happy ending” by a sermon on race tolerance.

An Honest Film

Based mostly on the true experiences of Dr. Albert Johnston, and conveniently “planted” in the Reader’s Digest by the Luce interests, this is nonetheless a bold, honest film on the Negro problem, produced at a time when such films have become fashionable not only morally but also at the box office. Happily, de Rochemont did not have to choose between a sense of social responsibility and profitable capital investment.

The first part grips by its realism and obvious honesty. There is no trace of soft soaping or of unconscious discrimination. Negroes are presented as human beings, in their own circles, and the very economy of the presentation cannot but have a salutary effect. A judicious blending of light and dark-skinned Negroes facilitates our identification and emotional involvement with the leading characters. The story is likewise outspoken in its social implications, thus offering a promise of a superior film.

Yet this promise is not kept. When the secret is “out,” the son, in a significantly over-dramatized sequence, realizes with horror that he is black, flees his home and wanders through Harlem to see his “brothers.” In one of the film’s most powerful sequences, the horror of Harlem as experienced by his over-sensitive mind is revealed in images bearing closer resemblance to the Hearst portrayal of Harlem than to the real Harlem of underprivileged workers. In shorts doubly impressive because of their rapidity, some of the more unsavory Harlem types are tendenciously picked out. Tendenciously, because the artist behind the camera selects what he shows, despite his pretense to realism. Poor Negro children at a crap garnet!), a sinister crowd of teen-age zoot-suiters, topped by a violent attack on a woman and a gun fight in the dark provide an image of Harlem that reinforces existing prejudices in the mind of the spectator, no matter how accurately they may reflect the boy’s frame of mind. True, Canada Lee as the police sergeant, “explains” to him that Harlem is conditioned by social factors, but his cliché-laden sermon, however well-intentioned, cannot compete with the power of the “visuals” which, as they should in any film, carry the burden of conviction. The end result is apt to be a sigh of relief by the spectator; “It’s a good thing I am not a Negro!” and his reaffirmation of the Negro’s otherness, backwardness and sinisterness.

Inadequate Ending

The township, having learned of Dr. Carter’s secret, turns against him. Yet the intervention of the preacher with a plea for brotherhood and tolerance in the spirit of Christ resolves the conflict and, coupled with the son’s return, brings the film to a happy end.

In a sense, the film ends where it should have begun. It utterly fails to discuss the Carters’ relations with the rest of the town either subsequent to their “expulsion” from it or during their re-acceptance. It is hardly believable that a sermon will provide the answer to the problem of race prejudice. Yet less than 10 minutes are spent in the film on what should be its key problem while more than 40 are used for a personalized, interfamily account of how various members of the family “adjusted” to the shock qf discovery. The film turns inward, and becomes a psychological rather than a social study. Such inversion, although socially less significant, would be entirely valid if a patently fake social solution had not been trotted out at the conclusion of the film. It is this social pretence which compels criticism.

How will Carters’ acceptance into this conservative New England community work out in practice? Racial tensions are not known to be more than temporarily if at all susceptible to the holy water of religion. In fact, the son’s terror at being told he is a Negro, the very violence of his reaction, give the lie to the film’s contention that this problem can be solved by a speech. Where, after all, did the son get his prejudices and fear from, if not the community?

In short, this “True to Life” story comes to a close at a point most convenient for the box office and least desirable for a real discussion of the problems involved. And, in spite of its often admirable forthrightness, there is considerable pussyfooting even in the telling of the story itself. The whites are never shown in all the viciousness and ugliness of their antiNegro prejudice, except fleetingly. Less diplomacy was exercised when it comes to Negroes expressing antiwhite prejudices; their comments are so sharply put as to shock and again repel the spectator. The implied condemnation of the navy for its discriminatory policies is thoroughly blunted when the preacher reports that it is no longer in force.

Thus, the over-all impression remains that the unfortunate moral of the film is either, at worst, that religion is the savior, or, at best, that everything will turn out all right for the Negro – if he looks like a white man.

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