Intruder in the Dust


U.S.A. / 1949 / English

Directed by Clarence Brown

With Claude Jarman Jr., Juano Hernandez, David Brian

Still from 'Intruder in the Dust'Toward the beginning of Intruder in the Dust, Chick Mallison, a 16-year old boy living in a small Mississippi town, recalls his first meeting, four years earlier, with Lucas Beauchamp, a black man who is now accused of murdering a white man: while hunting rabbits on property that turns out to be Lucas’, Chick stumbles off of a tree trunk bridge and falls to the bottom of an icy creek. When the boy resurfaces, Lucas brings him back to his house, dries and warms him up, and feeds him the only food that he has. Sensing that he has broken an unspoken white-Southern taboo by accepting the hospitality of a black man, Chick decides to compensate for this by offering the man some money in return. When Lucas, frozen-faced, refuses it, Chick, hot with embarrassment and unable to think of an alternative, throws the coins on the ground and orders him to pick them up, to, as he would later put it, “act like a nigger.”

For years after this incident, Chick will persistently send Lucas gifts, hoping that the man will eventually accept and be put in his rightful place of subservience, of gratitude, and act the same way as all of the other black people in Chick’s life. The tokens are always sent back, sometimes with the effrontery to include a reciprocal gift. Lucas is not, as Pauline Kael observes, “the good negro (Sidney Poitier is his prophet)” but rather, “the maddening negro,” who lives in his own way and on his own terms, largely confounding the stereotypes and constraints others would impose upon him. And for that the white inhabitants of the town are afraid of him and what he implies of their social order.

In the American South of William Faulkner’s novel (the film was shot close to the author’s home, in Oxford, MS) the white establishment is something stronger than and removed from the courts, the police, and the state governments, and with older and deeper roots. In the book he describes this affiliation of “brawlers and foxhunters and whiskeymakers” who “did not even simply inhabit nor had merely corrupted but had translated and transmogrified that whole region…” And they still command a sort of feudal deference; the murder was committed in a part of town where the police will not even venture unless they have a very good reason. And the victim, Vinson Gowrie, was a scion of just such a dynasty whose influence spreads throughout the hills of the surrounding area. For this, and for the fact of who stands accused, the public’s attention is immediately stirred, and they waste no time. A crowd has gathered around Sheriff Hamton’s car even before he has escorted Lucas into the jailhouse. But before the people, led by Vinson’s brother, kill Lucas, two things must first happen: Vinson must be interred, and night must fall.

Lucas calls on Chick’s uncle, a successful lawyer named John Stevens, to take his case. He will not proclaim his innocence nor will he admit his guilt. Stevens agrees to take the case, although he knows that Lucas will not survive long enough to go before a judge. Still the black man will, until his dying day, not go out on their terms. Talking to the lawyer is his way of avoiding silence, while at the same time he remains stoic. But as it happens, he also asks Chick, in private, to go and investigate the circumstances behind the murder and find out the truth about what happened. So the imprisoned man is doing two things: he is, in appearance, prostrating himself before the white elite, through whom he could never receive justice, and allying himself with Chick, whom he sees as untarnished by the prior assumptions and prejudices that make the adults so inflexible. The boy lost some of the ingrained racism that was being built into his character when he wound up in Lucas’ sitting room, as Ralph Ellison notes in his essay The Shadow and the Act, figuratively falling through the paper-thin ice of his “inherited views of the world, especially his Southern conceptions of negroes.” Lucas is working on the bond that began to form between him and Chick when he helped him all those years ago, and recognizes the boy’s reaction to the monetary rebuke was automatic, not deliberate.

Still from 'Intruder in the Dust'Always a lone figure on the outskirts, coming into town occasionally to visit the general store and haunting the backwoods of each white person’s psyche, Lucas is now front and center and in eye of the local populace. They must, to appease their own sense of order, see him reduced from a menacing Stack O’Lee figure to a cowering victim, finally cornered. Stevens mistakenly identifies Lucas’ reaching out to him as a crack in the façade, when in fact the man is merely hedging his bets, playing two sides of a potentially sympathetic minority that can bypass, through reason, order, and a code of honor, the latent violence of the awaiting crowd. In the court of public opinion, it is Lucas’ turn for comeuppance, for having lived so long in self-sustaining defiance of their corrupt and inhumane cultural norms.

Southerners seemingly from many levels of society trickle in to the town square throughout the day, awaiting midnight when a mob will enter the jailhouse and forcibly drag Lucas from his cell. Not only foxhunters and poolhall denizens, not only Gowries, but also dentists, doctors, and schoolmarms – when something so momentous has occurred, they all find themselves in one fraternity. Some of the film’s most brilliant tracking shots reveal this growing crowd, chilling not just for how dead-eyed and bent on violence it is, but also for how simultaneously casual, normal, and organic in appearance it is. These faces are all familiar in some way, but with a sheen of morbidity now obscuring their reputed humanity.

In that shot we start to understand how these large group photos from the Jim Crow salad days can exist, daytime shots of an entire white community posing and even smiling around the body of a lynched black man. In otherwise genteel circumstances, these nightmare scenes are like a neighborhood cook-out with torture-murder thrown in. When friends and neighbors are in on it, people no longer need hoods or nightfall to hide behind. The sham of civility collapses and they are free to acknowledge their bloodthirstiness without obscuring it in anonymity. The people we see don’t all have a connection with the case, nor do they all, as Faulkner explores in a deeper way, share the same political opinions, but they will come from far and wide to turn out for a show of mob mentality.

What the film compresses in the interest of adaptation – the workings of each character’s attitudes, which the novel addresses without directly describing (what are Lucas’ thoughts? How do other blacks view him? One might wonder) – it makes up for by being beautifully illustrative, dramatically lean, and almost neorealist in style. Faulkner, an author who spent some time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, could most certainly understand the difficulties present in rendering such details cinematically. Oftentimes the work of adapting a novel to the screen is a process of translating it into a certain widespread vernacular, making the story more available to more people. Ellison makes the point that Intruder in the Dust came at the end of a cycle of “problem” films concerning race that were released in 1949. They – Pinky, Home of the Brave, and Lost Boundaries – variously dealt with African Americans in the army, racial intermarrying, and so-called “passing.” Out of all of these films, in Ellison’s view, it is only Intruder in the Dust that won’t inspire “derisive laughter” among black audiences – or phony sobs among whites. It is both important to the history of American cinema and valuable on the level of the audience – all audiences, anywhere in the country.

The film deals with race, and does so with a depth and incisiveness nearly unparalleled in its time, though ultimately it is not about race but about humanity. That and the singularity of the character of Lucas make it stand out among Hollywood offerings. It involves the viewer emotionally but does not patronize, nor does it debase its characters to burnished archetypes. The evolution of Chick’s consciousness is the film’s most visible message, along with Lucas’ continuing efforts to be his own individual. Both characters have a need to shake off the burdens of society, both of them being in a position to really see what those are. Lucas will never “act like a nigger,” because he isn’t one; he isn’t an image or a type of behavior or anything that exists purely in relation to the white characters. Stevens simplistically remarks to Chick that Lucas “is the keeper of our consciences.” But he never asked to be that. Chick knows it, in spite of the influence of these adults and his own received wisdom. What his uncle is suggesting is too lofty for anyone to be, let alone an individual caught up in the tumultuous guilt of a divided society. Lucas demonstrates it: each person is the keeper of his or her own conscience, and imagining it devolved to another, whether scapegoat or ruler, digs the slope toward savagery.


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