Tuesday, November 24, 2015

When a kiss is not just a kiss

For decades the first televised inter-racial kiss was thought to be between Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura during the third season of Star Trek.  The 1968 episode was Plato's Stepchildren, where a group of Platonians have fun with the captain and crew, forcing them to do things they otherwise wouldn't want to do.  In this sense, Kirk and Uhura were literally powerless to resist the temptation, no matter how great it was.  It seemed both got into the role.

Well, it turns out BBC beat NBC to the punch with a more friendly kiss between a black man and a white woman in a play that focused on an inter-racial relationship called You in Your Small Corner (1962).   Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) dealt with a similar theme, but didn't go so far as to bring Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton to lock lips.  Too bad as they would have at least pre-dated the notorious Star Trek episode.

Miscegenation laws made Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a risky affair.  The Motion Picture Production Code explicitly forbid such relationships shown in movies, so the producers and Stanley Kramer had to walk gingerly around the topic.  It helped having a star-studded cast to support the highly-respected Sidney Poitier, who had risen to fame with Lilies of the Field and To Sir, with Love.  Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn played liberal white parents who found their political stances tested by their free-spirited daughter, delightfully played by Katharine Houghton.

Another missed opportunity was No Strings, a Tony-award winning stage production that featured Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley, which first premiered in 1962.  However, the idea that Diahann was black never figured into the story or the music.  The winsome actress played a model born "north of Central Park."  Diahann Carroll would go onto have a great career, including a beloved television show, Julia, which ran from 1968-71, but the main love in her life was her little boy.

I suppose if one dug through the film and stage archives, one could find something from before the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code that saw an inter-racial relationship, however fleeting.  After all, the Bard of Avon explored the subject long ago in Othello.  But, such productions would have white actors in black face.  Similarly the inter-racial romances between Whites and Indians tended to be between persons of the same color pretending to be opposites.

There was the suggestion of such an inter-racial relationship in Imitation of Life (1934) between a mixed-race daughter of a housekeeper and a white suitor, but no kiss. The film deserves a lot of credit though for exploring the subject of what it was like for a light-skinned black woman in a deeply segregated society, with Fredi Washington as Peola.

We look back at these films and television shows with nostalgia and humor, as such barriers only exist in persons' minds these days.  Still, Spike Lee raised some hackles as things got hot and heavy between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever.

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