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  Liberation of L.B. Jones, The Southern Discomfort
Year: 1970
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Zerbe, Roscoe Lee Browne, Lola Falana, Lee Majors, Barbara Hershey, Yaphet Kotto, Arch Johnson, Chill Wills, Zara Cully, Fayard Nicholas, Joseph Attles, Lauren Jones, Dub Taylor, Brenda Sykes, Larry D. Mann, Ray Teal, Eve McVeagh
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: A train travels into this town in the Deep South, and three passengers contrast with one another, a couple, Mr and Mrs Mundine (Lee Majors and Barbara Hershey), who are moving there to be part of the legal practice of her father Oman Hedgepath (Lee J. Cobb), and Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto) whose only possession he has on him is a cigar box containing a handgun. He has returned for revenge, as when he was a young boy he saw a cop murder his friend, but he has to be smart and not allow the law to know what he is there for, so when he jumps off the train before it reaches the station, he manages to play dumb as a different cop, Officer Worth (Anthony Zerbe), approaches...

The most interesting thing about The Liberation of L.B. Jones is that it was based on a true story, a real life lynching of a black pillar of the community that was turned into a book by Jesse Hill Ford who also penned the screenplay, only for it to be extensively rewritten by big deal at the time Stirling Silliphant. The case should have been a scandal, but there was a cover-up thanks to the endemic racism of the authorities, so naturally the book pissed off a lot of people in the area, and it was clear the film was intended to do the same for the whole of America, an expose of how awful conditions were for the non-white population of the South even after the Civil Rights pioneers.

Yet it did not turn out that way, as obviously racists were not going to attend it, the portrayal of white liberalism as utterly useless didn't endear it to that market, and the black audience wouldn't be too keen to go and see a tale of the racists winning over their community, no matter that it notoriously featured the first black on white murder in Hollywood history. Well, maybe not that notoriously, as at the time this made few waves, and now is almost completely forgotten outside of those intrigued by the curios that the early years of racial progress in the mainstream would throw up as a matter of course. And no wonder: under William Wyler's direction, it was a lumbering beast.

Wyler was the most successful director of his age, second only to John Ford, a German emigre who had ended up in Hollywood and proceeded to develop no real identifiable style but went about his productions with immense skill and professionalism. His previous film had been the Barbra Streisand hit Funny Girl, a typical confection of the sixties still clinging to the genres of the Golden Age, but he always had a streak of social conscience that made him invested in asking difficult questions of society in regular projects, so that was presumably what attracted him to adapting this book. However, there had already been a massive success on the subject of the problems of the South, and that was In the Heat of the Night, which significantly ended by patting everyone on the back for the progress they were making.

Not so with L.B. Jones, where aside from the titular character who was painted as too good for the community, and by extension the nation, he was trapped in, everyone else was, shall we say, somewhat flawed. Jones' wife was Emma (future Las Vegas showstopper Lola Falana), who only married him for his money and is having an affair with Worth that she flaunts in her husband's face, that is until she is made pregnant by Worth and he starts knocking her around, since his power trip is having sex with black women (he rapes one poor soul later on) and that extends to victimising them. Hedgepath meanwhile, asked to arrange a divorce, represented the bigotry in authority and vacillates over the task until it doesn't matter anymore, then arranges a cover up when the unspeakable happens; he also bandies the N word around so often you'd think he was a refugee from a Quentin Tarantino movie. Meanwhile (again) Mosby plots and plots. Really, this painted such an unlovely picture of humanity that it was a chore to sit through under Wyler's stuffy, past it technique, neither as outrageous as the seventies deserved, nor incisive as the case needed. Music by Elmer Bernstein.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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