The Strange Case of L. B. Jones

"The Liberation of L. B. Jones" is a powerful film, but difficult to find.

There is a fascinating opinion piece by Professor Patricia A. Turner in a recent edition of the New York Times. In it, she argues that the current hit film The Help perpetuates “dangerous white stereotypes”–that the only racists that existed in the south were mean bastards or bitches who were so awful that they kept good whites from being able to affect change. As Turner puts it, “To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.”

Turner goes on to skewer an American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. That film, which she admits “moves her”, also shows, according to her, a total falsehood. “[T]hat well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.”

I’ve not seen The Help (though I plan to), but I’ve watched Mockingbird, and I share Turner’s feelings. Subtle things bothered me: for instance, the “good” people in that film (I have yet to read the book), have wonderful, interesting names like Atticus, Dill, Boo Radley, Scout. The black character? Tom Robinson. Might as well call him John Doe.

Furthermore, I have to wonder why Atticus Finch, a good lawyer and prominent citizen, isn’t working toward breaking more barriers–as if he’s somehow incapable of affecting change. Atticus is a hero to these strangely mute, strangely subdued African-Americans… and again, white liberals are the saviors of a people who seemingly are incapable of fighting for their own rights.

I get the feeling the truth is far from Mockingbird and The Help.

But I digress, because this is a review of a film that I think succeeds in a way that Turner might find interesting. The movie in question is the little-seen Liberation of L. B. Jones. That this bizarre, entertaining, moving and ultimately disturbing picture has been totally ignored strikes me as depressing, but perhaps it also a reflection of the disturbing nature of the picture.

(Let me also begin by apologizing for the difficulty you’ll face in trying to find L. B. Jones. It’s not in print on DVD, I’m not sure it was ever on VHS, and you’ll have to get a crappy, pan-and-scan disc off eBay. But it’s worth it… NOTE: Since writing this piece, I’ve been informed that you can get a good copy of this beast at the Warner Archives for twenty bucks–the price of a movie for two. It’s worth it!)

The Liberation of L. B. Jones opens on a train. We see three characters, each staring out the window, but with different expressions. Steve and Nella Mundine (Lee Majors and Barbara Hershey in early roles), are obviously in love, leaning on one another, and enjoying the scenery. As the train barrels toward Somerset, Tennessee, we see the shacks where the town’s African-American population lives, in dire poverty. Children race by on bikes. Steve and Nella laugh to themselves at the kids’ antics, pointing as if they’re looking at penguins in a zoo.

Down the aisle is Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto, excellent.) His expression couldn’t be more different. He is angry and disgusted at his home town, at the conditions of his people, and he’s thinking awful thoughts. For the man has revenge on his mind. In a cigar box he keeps with him at all times is a pistol which he hopes to use on a police officer who hurt him years ago.

Steve and Nella are good-hearted liberals, he the nephew of the town’s power-broker and leading lawyer, Oman Hedgepath. Mr. Hedgepath is played by Lee J. Cobb, in a subdued performance that is perfect for this part. Hedgepath is pleased as punch that his nephew and beautiful niece-in-law is coming to live with him, the nephew to practice law in Oman’s firm.

While getting settled into the office, a dour, older black man, Lord Byron Jones (Roscoe Lee Browne, also perfect), comes in eager to hire Hedgepath. Jones wants the best lawyer to represent him in a divorce against his younger, adulterous wife, Emma (Lola Falana.) At first, Hedgepath brushes him off, but his nephew is eager to take on the case. So Hedgepath agrees to take it on himself.

The problem? Emma doesn’t want a divorce. Jones is a wealthy undertaker, providing her with a lot of money, a great place to live, and she thinks she can screw who she wants behind the old man’s back. Since she doesn’t want the divorce, they’ll duke it out in court. And in court, the name of her lover will become public knowledge.

Therein lies the rub: Emma’s lover is Willie Joe Worth (Anthony Zerbe). See, he’s a white cop, with a white wife, and some white kids. And that’s some fucking trouble.

The Liberation of L. B. Jones has, at its core, a crack plot. Everyone’s put into tight and sticky situations: Hedgepath just wants this thing to go away, Worth wants to keep screwing Emma, Jones wants her out of his life. From this simple domestic squabble comes dramatic dynamite. For things will get bad, terribly bad, and despite what happens in the course of the movie, only the soul of L. B. Jones will emerge whole.

The movie is remarkable in part because it is so damned honest. The director, William Wyler, had a noteworthy career that included Oscar wins, most notably for The Best Years of Our Lives. He takes this sharp script–by the source novel’s author, Jesse Hill Ford, and professional screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (himself an Oscar winner for In the Heat of the Night)–and allows it to breathe. There’s few close ups, not much moody lighting, but just a straightforward look at trouble in a small Southern town.

Ford and Silliphant people this terrible tale with multifaceted creatures. L. B. Jones is a steady, solid businessman, a pillar of his community. But that community is complex, just as he is complex. Jones isn’t a square, but a profound figure, ruminating over his role in town, hungry for young women, funny, articulate, and prone to melancholy. He’s no romantic about his wife–he likes young women in general. But he also doesn’t like to be screwed.

Emma is a little bitch who wants his money. But then again, as the movie makes clear, in life we should be free to be little bitches and bastards, with the consequences commensurate with our actions. What happens to Emma and L. B. simply isn’t right, no matter who they are.

Mosby, on the other hand, wants revenge, but doesn’t know if he can come around to killing the cop who beat him and sent him to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He also doesn’t know how good it would be if he did kill a man–he’d lose a bit of his soul, maybe a lot of his soul.

The African-American community is made up of successful people, bar owners and farmers and undertakers, just as it is made up of losers who drink too much, former criminals, and young women and men on the make. Unlike Mockingbird, which didn’t show this community at all, or, say, Mississippi Burning, which showed the black citizens as dull and somber and waiting for help, Liberation gives us people–not stereotypes.

In fact, both communities are drawn into this divorce, as Jones becomes threatened by the police. Mosby tries to protect Jones, to no avail. The police and Hedgepath jump through hoops to try and keep everything from exploding, but fail. The inevitable arrives quickly, violently, and its sickening.

The messages in this film are legion: that the end result is a tragedy for L. B. Jones in particular (though not as much as you might think), and the black community in general, but also for whites. For it also reveals that racism is a disease that has totally infected the white populace–good and bad–and is wrecking their souls. Oddly enough, Willie Joe reveals a bit of conscience (and plenty of stupidity) after he’s committed a terrible crime for which he won’t be punished.

Steve and his wife Nella find themselves totally incapable of change, in part because they didn’t bother to think that their uncle, Oman, would stick with the status quo. They confront him at times, but in the end do very little themselves, and end up in retreat. In the end, Hedgepath is emotionally (but not financially or socially) ruined, the police go about their business, and the whites try to forget a murder that the blacks will carry with them like a burning ember forever.

The Liberation of L. B. Jones is a fascinating movie experience, if only to see a variety of great actors pushing themselves into moral positions I’m not sure they ever faced before (or after.) Cobb’s Hedgepath is far from the scene chewing racist bully. He’s a man who once held high ideals, but allowed them to atrophy and now is as damaging to the cause of racial justice as the awful desk clerk at the prison who believes that blacks with blue gums carry disease. In fact, and this the key to L. B. Jones, Cobb’s Hedgepath is worse. Just because he’s friendly doesn’t mean shit–his actions ruined the lives of a number of people, and made things worse, much worse, in Somerset, Tennessee.

There are few stereotypes here, if any, few easy answers, few purely good people but plenty of bad choices. The Liberation of L. B. Jones dares to make its black characters complex, even at times unlikable, dares to make good-hearted whites culpable and ineffective, and dares to suggest that everyone bears responsibility for these injustices. Here, no one is spared. I get the feeling that in real life, no one ever was.

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