Thursday, February 15, 2024

Me and Mrs. Jones

One of the "stars" that TCM put the spotlight on in the 2023 edition of Summer Under the Stars was the Nicholas Brothers. They weren't really stars per se, being mostly a dance act. One dramatic movie in which only one of the two brothers, Fayard, appeared, was The Liberation of L.B. Jones, so naturally TCM included this as part of the brothers' day. I finally watched it and can now do a review on it here.

The movie opens up with a pre-credits sequence of train going down the tracks, with the camera highlighting three people on the train. Those are the newlywed couple of Steve and Nella Mundine (Lee Majors and Barbara Hershey respectively), and a black man who looks rather nervous: "Sonny Boy" Mosby (Yaphet Kotto). Sonny Boy jumps off the train not long before it gets to its destination. A police car is stopped at the crosing, and they spot Sonny Boy, harassing him because this is 1960s Tennessee, they're white, and he's black.

The Mundines are also getting off in the town of Somerton. They're met at the station by Steve's uncle, Oman Hedgepath (Lee J. Cobb). Hedgepath is the big white lawyer in town, and Steve, having recently graduated from law school and having passed the bar exam, is being given the position of partner in the newly-named Hedgepath and Mundine. At the law offices is L.B. Jones (Roscoe Lee Browne). He's the undertaker for the town's black population, which seems like about the closest thing to a black middle class Somerton is going to have. Jones is there looking for Hedgepath to represent him as he's looking for a divorce from his adulterous wife Emma (Lola Falana).

Hedgepath turns Jones down, which clearly has something to do with the racial politics of the small-town South of the late 1960s. Mundine doesn't understand why his uncle doesn't want to take the case, having spent a bunch of time in the bigger city at law school and obviously having developed more modern attitudes on race relations, and even offers to take Jones' case himself. Hedgepath doesn't want those attitudes to take over, so when Mundine offers to take on the case, he has a sudden change of heart and takes the case himself.

The reason Hedgepath decides he wants to take the case after all is because Emma has decided to contest the divorce. Emma has been having an affair Willie Joe (Anthony Zerbe), one of the cops in town, and more importantly, a white guy. Hedgepath understands that a white judge and jury in a divorce case isn't going to belive L.B. Worse for him, however, is when Willie Joe goes to see Emma. She tries to get money out of him, and he badly beats her and frames L.B. for it.

As for Sonny Boy, he had left town years earlier after being brutalized by the white cops. Where L.B. Jones is clearly a symbol of the Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King school of thought of integration by being peaceful and virtuous, Sonny Boy is part of the W.E.B DuBois and Malcom X strand that thought "by any means necessary". Sonny Boy doesn't want to get in more legal trouble than what forced him to leave town in the first place, but when he sees what the white man is doing to poor L.B., he might feel forced to go back to any means necessary....

As I watched The Liberation of L.B. Jones, I couldn't help but think of MGM, even though this movie was made at Columbia. What made me think of MGM is how they made a lot of stuff back in their heyday that was glossy but unadventurous, something that I even think I mentioned in regards to the Spencer Tracy movie Fury which dealt with mob justice. The Liberation of L.B. Jones is another of thse movies that feels like it was made a decade or two too late. It wants to say Important Things, but the Important Things have passed the movie by and instead we get a warmed-over set of pulled punches.

That's unfair to the cast, however. They all do the best they can with the material, and the performances are mostly pretty good. (I will say that Cobb feels like he's done this sort of character enough that he's not really putting as much effort into it as he did in, say, On the Waterfront.) The Liberation of L.B. Jones is another of those movies that's definitely worth one watch, but feels like it could have been a lot better.

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