Before reviewing Odds Against Tomorrow in particular, it will be worthwhile to consider its place in the history of the movies when it comes to depicting black crime.
African American Criminals in the Movies
Prior to 1960, movies in which we saw an African American committing a crime were rare. There were, of course, those movies featuring an all black or mostly black cast, such as Hallelujah (1929) and The Emperor Jones (1933), not to mention those low-budget films like Underworld (1937) and Dark Manhattan (1937). Since these movies featured mostly black actors, it was to be expected that the bad guys would be black along with most everyone else.
Native Son was an important novel of the twentieth century, but no American studio would touch it. A low-budget version was made in Argentina in 1951, in which Bigger Thomas was played by Richard Wright, who was also the author of the novel. Bigger is a black man who commits several crimes, including murder. In the novel, Bigger rapes his girlfriend Bessie before he murders her, but the rape is not in the movie. For a black man in the movies, rape is always a worse crime than murder. In the movies referred to in the previous paragraph, there are murders. Usually, it is one black man killing another black man, although in The Emperor Jones, Paul Robeson, while on a chain gang, kills a white guard by hitting him in the head with a shovel. The actual blow, however, is snipped out of the film. We see Robeson rear back with the shovel, and then we see the guard lying still on the ground. But in any event, there are no rapes in any of these films.
When it came to movies made within the Hollywood studio system, however, we seldom saw a black man commit a crime prior to 1960. One of the men that attack Scarlett on the bridge near shanty town in Gone With the Wind (1939) was black, but he was a minor character, briefly seen, and with no speaking part. We may see a black man who is doing time, as in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), from which a crime may be inferred, but the crime itself is never seen. In The Defiant Ones (1958), the crime is described, but again, it is not seen. Of course, even then, that for which Sidney Poitier’s character, Noah Cullen, was convicted makes him a sympathetic figure: he hit a white man that pulled a gun on him while trying to evict him from his farm. And on top of that, we really know we are supposed to like Noah when we find out he had a five-year-old child when he was arrested. In real life, evil men have children just like everyone else, but evil men in the movies usually do not have preadolescent children. (One exception would be The Prince and the Pauper (1937).) In other words, Noah is not the typical criminal in a movie that the audience wants to see pay for his crime, either through imprisonment or death.
Technically speaking, we do see Noah and John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) commit two minor crimes while escaping from a prison farm: they break into the general store of a turpentine camp in hopes of getting some food and some tools to break the chain that holds them together; and then they hit some guy while trying to get away after the noise they made breaking into the store wakes up the men in that camp.
In his Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Donald Bogle gives a reason why, for several decades, there were so few black criminals in movies having the cachet of a major Hollywood studio: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) presented the “brutal, black buck” so vividly, creating such a controversy, that no one would dare do anything like that again. From then on, “the Negro could not be depicted in the guise of an out-and-out villain.” Instead, he goes on to say, the black male was pretty much relegated to comic roles: “Not until more than a half-century later, when Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) appeared, did sexually assertive black males make their way back to the screen.”
It is to be noted that Sweetback does not rape anyone or even threaten to do so, unlike Gus and the other black men in The Birth of a Nation, who try to rape white women, but are prevented from doing so. There is even an unwillingness to make a movie in which a black man rapes a black woman, although Black Caesar (1973) provides us with an example of that. According to Bogle, just emphasizing a black man’s sexuality was too threatening all by itself. That is why no studio would provide funding for Sweetback. The actual “crimes” in this movie consist of his beating up two white cops and later killing a couple of others, though they all deserved what they got.
It would not be until Death Wish II (1982) that an African American rapes a white woman in a movie. Charles Bronson reprises his role as Paul Kersey, who is still taking care of his daughter, devastatingly traumatized by being raped in the original Death Wish (1974). She is raped again in this sequel, but this time by an African American. However, his skin is light, so as to lessen the effect. Two dark-skinned African Americans rape the housekeeper, but she is played by Silvana Gallardo, who was of Venezuelan, Sicilian, Cuban and Native American descent. In that way, the color difference is lessened as well.
Regarding color difference, Kersey’s daughter, Carol, is played in the sequel by Robin Sherwood, a brunette. Her a dark aspect, at least as to her hair color, also helped to lessen the interracial contrast. This device of minimizing the color difference would seem to have been completely set aside in The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck (1988), where the raped woman is played by Kathy Shower, who is as white and blond they come. She is raped by what appears to be an African American, except that he is not an American, and he is apparently not of African descent either. Rather, he is a cannibal in the jungles of Sri Lanka, presumably making him Asian. So, the device of lessening the color difference in this case is applied to the rapist.
In Switchback (1997), Danny Glover plays an African American serial killer, which is unique as far as I know. And yet, this stirred no controversy. But if we had also seen him raping the white women he killed, which often happens with serial killers, the movie would have caused a riot, if it ever managed to get shown in the theaters at all.
An unusual item for our consideration is Deep in My Heart (1999), which was based on a true story, in which a white woman is raped by a black man in the early 1960s. It’s a made-for-television movie, so naturally there is no explicit scene. We see a man grab a woman at night on a dark street and force her to the ground. Then we see her lying there afterwards. It’s so dark that we only know that he is an African American because she tells her husband she was raped by a “colored.”
During the rape scene and its aftermath, we don’t hear the sort of background music you would expect, grim and discordant. No, what we hear is ethereal music, almost blessing the occasion. After telling her husband what happened, this woman, who soon will be the mother of the child of the man that raped her, gets on her knees, removes the Rosary hanging from a crucifix, and begins praying, jumping right to the prayer to Mary, the supreme mother in Christianity, especially for Catholics.
There are other sentimentalizing aspects about this rape. In narrating the story many years later, the woman, played by Anne Bancroft, says that she had just had a baby four months earlier. We tend to be sentimental about women that are mothers of infants. Furthermore, she tells us that she was still breastfeeding. Logically, it would not seem to matter how she sees to her baby’s nourishment, but we are informed about this because there is a presumption that mothers that breastfeed are more loving and caring than those that don’t. When she gets pregnant, her husband is so sweet and wonderful that he wants to keep the baby, even if it isn’t his. When it turns out to be the baby of the black man that raped her, she decides to give it up for adoption, thinking the child, a girl she names Barbara, will be better off that way.
Much melodrama follows, involving foster parents and then adoptive parents, followed by Barbara’s successful search for her birth mother when she grows up, with recriminations and then reconciliation. In then end, Barbara’s extended family, including her own children, are all together, posing for a picture. The only family member not there is her father, the rapist. But given the overall tone of this movie, it wouldn’t have surprised he if he had shown up for the picture too, asking for forgiveness and being welcomed with open arms.
The point is that the rape of a white woman by a black man in this movie is not depicted as something evil, but more like a seemingly unfortunate, natural event, one which turns out to be for the best in the end. It reminds me of what Richard Mourdock said during a debate in 2012, while running as the Republican candidate for Senator of Indiana, when asked if he was in favor of allowing a woman to have an abortion in the case of rape or incest:
I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
Deep in My Heart was directed by Anita W. Addison. Whether she meant for this movie to express a pro-life attitude similar to that of Mourdock, I cannot say. But as she was African American herself, it seems reasonable to suppose that she made this movie to push back against white fear of black lust, which regards the rape of a white woman by a black man as one of life’s worst horrors.
Needless to say, this belief that a rape was part of God’s divine plan would be harder to accept if the woman was also murdered. Returning to Native Son, it is noteworthy that the 1986 and 2019 versions of this novel omitted both the rape and the murder of Bessie. There is still a great deal of reluctance to portray a black man doing something so evil, even if it does take place as part of a story that is supposed to elicit sympathy and understanding for African Americans.
Actually, the decision not to include the rape and murder of Bessie in these last two movie versions probably transcends the general reluctance to portray a black man in that way. Those who produced these two versions undoubtedly thought that the accidental killing of Mary, the daughter of the man who hired Bigger to be the family’s chauffeur, would have been enough to communicate the terror a black man might have felt in his situation. But I dare say even the African Americans in the audience might have found themselves losing all sympathy for Bigger were they to have seen him rape and murder his girlfriend, let alone those of us that might have a blind spot in these matters on account of being white.
In general, black criminals in the movies are usually motivated by money or revenge. Perversion and cruelty are motives mostly reserved for white criminals.
Odds Against Tomorrow
As far as I can tell, aside from the movies with a mostly black cast, the first mainstream movie made after The Birth of a Nation in which an African American character is actually seen committing a major crime is Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). But a heavy price had to be paid for that privilege. The black criminal is contrasted with a white criminal in a manner so simplistic that it is suitable only as a lesson for children in Sunday school.
There are two main characters: Earle Slater, who is white, and Johnny Ingram, who is black. Over and over, throughout this movie, we are shown how Earle is bad and Johnny is good. Therefore, white people are not superior to black people. Therefore, racism is wrong.
Using Robert Ryan to play Earle gives the movie a head start in making its point, inasmuch as Ryan had often played unlikable characters, and had played a bigot in both Crossfire (1947) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). In the opening scene, a group of children are playing, and a little black girl accidentally runs into Earle. He picks her up and calls her a pickaninny. (He continues to use derogatory racist terms disparaging African Americans throughout the movie.) Then he goes into a hotel. He is rude to the clerk, who is white, but is even ruder to the elevator operator, who is black, refusing to respond to his attempts at casual conversation. When he gets to the room he is going to, ex-cop Dave Burke (Ed Begley) offers Earle a chance to be part of a bank robbery. During the conversation, we find out that Earle has an explosive temper, which goes with the fact that he has served two stretches in prison, one for assault with a deadly weapon, and one for manslaughter, which he later says he enjoyed. Earle is reluctant to take the job when he finds out he will be working with a black man.
After he leaves, Johnny arrives. Johnny is played by Harry Belafonte. He is really nice to those same children Earle saw earlier, and he is nice to the elevator operator, and he is nice to Dave Burke. Gosh, he’s nice! During their easy-going, polite conversation, it turns out that Johnny is basically law-abiding, but he plays the horses and is in debt. He is reluctant to take a job robbing a bank, but eventually agrees to because he needs the money to pay off a loan shark.
Johnny is sexually respectable. He is a divorced man who supports his ex-wife with alimony. He is still in love with her. Earle is supported by Lorry (Shelley Winters), a woman he is shacked up with. He cheats on her.
Johnny is a wonderful father to his daughter, and is happy to babysit her when his ex-wife needs him to. When Lorry asks Earle to babysit the neighbor’s child, he becomes angry and rude, and he refuses to do it.
I noted above that one of the ways a movie guides us into liking a criminal is by giving him a young child. That is why it is Johnny and not Earle that has the young daughter.
In addition to Johnny’s being a better person than Earle regarding their moral qualities, Johnny is also smarter. When there is a snag in the plan to rob the bank, Johnny is the one who figures out a solution.
Just before the holdup, the three men separately kill time, waiting for nightfall. Johnny is sitting by a river when suddenly he sees what appears to be a white baby floating in the water. He is alarmed and runs over to rescue it. But it is just a doll. Johnny is relieved.
While Earle is sitting in his car, he sees a cute little bunny rabbit. He smiles as he gets out his shotgun. When the bunny tries to run away, Earle shoots it just for fun.
The only thing that makes this movie tolerable is that it is built around a bank heist, which eventually takes place, but it all goes bad. When Dave gets shot several times by the police, Earle is worried that Dave will talk when the police get their hands on him, possibly getting him to give up his accomplices. Johnny, on the other hand, cares about Dave and tries to save him. When Dave shoots himself in the head, Earle is happy, but Johnny is sad.
In the end, Earle and Johnny end up killing each other, blowing up a bunch of tanks with flammable liquid in the process, leaving only their charred bodies behind. The police are unable to tell which one is which, because now Earle is just as black as Johnny. Therefore, racism is wrong. Sunday school is over.