It happens near the end of Sommersby: Judge Barry Conrad Isaacs, presiding over the trial of a farmer (Richard Gere), enters a Tennessee courtroom, and the congregants gasp. Why? The judge (James Earl Jones) is black. But the film takes place during Reconstruction (1865-77), when there was staunch resistance in the South to freed blacks becoming full-fledged citizens. Could Jones really have been pounding a gavel in a predominantly white court?
Yes, according to the film’s coscreenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, who says that his research showed there were not only black judges in the South at the time but also others who held high governmental offices. ”There was a whole infrastructure set up in which blacks had power they never had before,” he says. True — but not true enough.
These are the facts: Blacks governed in ”skidaways,” Southern black communities created with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal social welfare agency. In addition to feeding the hungry, building hospitals, and financing black colleges, the bureau set up black courts. However, Sommersby doesn’t explain how Isaacs became a judge — or how he could oversee the trial of a white man.
”The chances that this could have happened are almost nonexistent,” says Achille Mbembe, a Reconstruction historian at the University of Pennsylvania.
Meyer does admit that the Isaacs character is a dramatic device. ”If I was going to exploit the idea of a black judge,” he says, ”it certainly made better sense to not just let him be window dressing.” Whatever Meyer’s intentions, Dr. Bishetta Merritt, chairperson of the School of Radio, Television and Film at Howard University in Washington, D.C., feels the film does an inadvertent injustice. ”Here was a perfect opportunity for a filmmaker to tell a story many don’t know,” she says. ”When will Hollywood stop using blacks as footnotes in films?”