Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms in 1919, filmmakers have tackled the subject of interracial love with varying degrees of realism. Spike Lee’s recently released Jungle Fever is easily the bluntest, but it shares with earlier movies certain conventions of the genre: the attraction between two people that others interpret in the harshest ways possible, the cautionary comments from those ”older and wiser,” and — more often than not — the view that a love so pure just can’t make it in a world so cruel. Here, some highlights in cinematic race relationships.
West Side Story
Race-crossed lovers: Puerto Rican Maria (Natalie Wood) and generic white boy Tony (Richard Beymer), New York teens caught up in Jets vs. Sharks rivalry
Results of romance: Choreographed rumbles, singing of ”Maria”, deaths of Tony’s friend Riff and Maria’s brother Bernardo
Can it last?: Tony gets shot dead by Shark Chino
Implied message: Storybook love is possible even among juvenile delinquents
Actual message: Youth gang membership involves dance numbers under West Side Highway
Words of warning: ”A boy like that who’d kill your brother/ Forget that boy and find another”
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Race crossed lovers: Black doctor (Sidney Poitier) and white fiancée (Katharine Houghton)
Results of romance: Major liberal qualms from older generation (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy)
Can it last?: Hey, it’s the ’60s. No problem
Implied message: Hip younger generation can handle cross-race romance.
Actual message: Who wouldn’t want Sidney Poitier for a son-in-law
Words of warning: ”Civil rights is one thing. This here is sumpin’ else.”
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Race-crossed lovers: Dumpy German cleaning lady (Brigitte Mira) and much younger immigrant Moroccan mechanic (El Hedi ben Salem)
Results of romance: They marry, are ostracized by her children and coworkers and his friends
Can it last?: Stress nearly drives them apart, gives Ali ulcers. Future uncertain.
Implied message: Capitalist society is a sinkhole of moral hypocrisy.
Actual message: Dumpy German cleaning ladies have better love lives than you’d think
Words of warning: ”Happiness is not always fun.”
The World of Suzie Wong
Race-crossed lovers: Hong Kong prostitute (Nancy Kwan) and American expatriate artist (William Holden)
Results of romance: Much tut-tutting among British colonial set, moral agita from Holden about sleeping with hooker
Can it last?: They wed and move to U.S. after Kwan’s son is killed in a mudslide
Implied message: Love conquers all
Actual message: It’s possible to work in a Hong Kong brothel and look like a movie star
Words of warning: ”One just doesn’t do that sort of thing with that sort of girl.”
Heat and Dust
Race-crossed lovers: 1920s: colonial Brit (Greta Scacchi) and Indian prince (Shashi Kapoor), 1980s: Scacchi’s great-niece (Julie Christie) and landlord (Zakir Hussain)
Results of romance: Both women become pregnant
Can it last?: Scacchi has an abortion, lives in exile with Kapoor. Christie raises baby alone
Implied message: Strong-minded women had it easier in the ’80s
Actual message: But the clothes were nicer in the ’20s.
Words of warning: ”It’s all that spicy food they eat. It heats the blood.”
Race-crossed lovers: Black sheriff (Jim Brown) and Mexican revolutionary (Raquel Welch) in turn-of-the-century Mexico
Results of romance: Outrage from railroad magnate (Dan O’Herlihy); impressed revolutionaries make Brown their leader
Can it last?: Welch takes a bullet in the climatic battle
Implied message: The Old West was a hotbed of interracial lust.
Actual message: Both Brown and Welch are scary enough to get away with whatever they want.
Words of warning: ”You got to be careful about a thing like that.”