When Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust appeared in 1948, during a period of mounting agitation for racial integration, it created a critical furor. Faulkner was accused of being pro-black because of his portrayal of Lucas Beauchamp as a dignified African-American, who refuses to conform to the standards set by white society. A native Southerner, Clarence Brown’s interest in the book was ignited by his vivid memories of a brutal Atlanta race riot lasting more than a week, that he witnessed in 1906. As a result of this dreadful experience, Brown for many years had wanted to make a film that examined the racial tensions in the South, and he was confident that Faulkner’s controversial novel would allow him to do just that. Intruder in the Dust was made during a period of social realism in Hollywood films which followed World War II. As Jones explains, ‘[it] was one of five important Hollywood motion pictures which dramatized the Negro problem in the United States, all but one of which were released during 1949 - others were Home of the Brave; Lost Boundaries; and Pinky and No Way Out. (Jones, 51) Intruder in the Dust is one of the best of Hollywood's post-war "racial tolerance" cycle - a cycle that would come to an abrupt end in the politically paranoid 1950s. The anti-Negro images of the films were -and are- acceptable because of the existence throughout the United States of an audience obsessed with an inner psychological need to view Negroes as less than men. ‘Thus, psychologically and ethically, these negative images constitute justifications for all those acts, legal, emotional, economic and political, which we label Jim Crow. The anti-Negro image is thus a ritual object of which Hollywood is not the creator, but the manipulator. Its role has been that of justifying the widely held myth of Negro inhumanness and inferiority by offering entertaining rituals through which that myth could be reaffirmed.’
It is important to note that Intruder in the Dust appeared during the time when the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations were creating fear in the film industry due to suspicions of there being Communist influences in films. The production process for some films were affected by these investigations. Studios became even more cautious and aware of the public’s reception of their films. Between 1947 and 1954 almost forty explicitly propagandistic anti-Communist films were made in Hollywood. Despite the fact that nearly all lost money, the studios continued to put the products out, hoping to prevent boycotts. Furthermore, producers tended to shy away from films about social problems. Therefore, Mayer’s reluctance to buy the film rights to Intruder in the Dust were understandable, although the threat of being investigated were not his main concern; he was more interested in films about motherhood. But Brown knew that this was a project he could not ignore. When production finally began, Brown had grasped the importance of the local Southern community as the setting for the novel. According to Fadiman, ‘although such practice was comparatively rare for Hollywood in the 1940s, the film was made almost entirely on location in Oxford, Mississippi. As a result, it captures the sense of community so vital to the meaning of both novel and film, and provides a valuable record of the homogeneity Gavin Stevens described.’ ( Fadiman,12) The film centres on a young white boy who learns about the power if racial inequality in his community after a black man is accused of murdering a white man. Lucas Beauchamp is the hero of the story, indeed the conscience, and his strong on-screen presence captivates the viewer. Fadiman further explains that ‘when he appears, Lucas dominates the scene; when he is absent, his emblematic power remains in the mind’s eye. His larger-than-life stature achieves heroic and mythic proportions, which are reinforced by the choreography of the crowd scenes, moving back and forth
across the Courthouse Square.’ ( Fadiman, 63) The first image of Lucas shows him already a prisoner, in a close shot of his handcuffed black wrists resting on the back of the seat of Sheriff Hampton’s car. One would assume that if an innocent man were arrested, he would surely insist on his innocence and refuse to be handcuffed. Lucas’s hands reflect his calmness; they are not clenched. It is the next shot which demonstrates Lucas’s dignity and sense of self-worth as he slowly emerges from the back of the car and looks at the mob who have come to lynch him. He holds his head high, as though he has nothing to be ashamed about nor anything to hide. His largerthan-life stature achieves heroic and mythic proportions, which are reinforced by the choreography of the crowd scenes, moving back and forth across the Courthouse Square. He has been silent until he sees Chick Mallison and orders him to get his uncle, the lawyer. He is not afraid of claiming his innocence in front of the white, angry crowd, who want to lynch him. It is the image of the first time Chick meets Lucas that the viewer comes to understand Lucas’s overpowering presence. When Chick falls into the water and, with Lucas’s help, manages to climb up the embankment, he first sets sight on Lucas’s boots. Chick slowly looks up to take in his first impression of Lucas, whose important height is exaggerated even further by the fact that he is seen from below. The fact that Lucas is casually holding an axe over a shoulder adds a sense of power to his presence as he stares intently at Chick lying at his feet. He projects an image of being an equal or perhaps even of a higher status than Chick and commands him to come with him to his house to “get cleaned up.” At his house, there are a series of staring-down confrontations between Lucas and Chick. In the first confrontation, Lucas orders the unwilling Chick to “strip-off” so that his wet clothes can be dried; in the second, Lucas refuses to take the coins with which Chick tries to pay for his meal.
When Lucas refuses the coins which Chick is holding out to him, there is a close-up of Chick’s hand as he angrily clenches it into a fist and then contemptuously drops the money on the floor. Phillips suggests that ‘this single image tells us more about the way in which the doctrine of white supremacy has been ingrained in Chick than several lines of dialogue could.’ (Phillips, 96) In both confrontations, by his formidable strength of will, Lucas masters Chick, who, under Lucas’s determined stare, lowers his eyes. Lucas admirably retains his dignity by ordering Alec Sander to pick up the coins and give them back to Chick. He has pride and he considers himself wiser than Chick, not because of the colour of his skin, but because of his age; Chick should be showing respect towards an elder. When Lucas refuses to pick up Chick’s money ‘we know Lucas is the master of his own home and land. We cannot fail to recognise him as the wise father, an authority not to be questioned, a man with such an inherent sense of human dignity that he cannot be touched by insolence, by anger, or by outrage. And somehow, the emptiness, the futility of Chick’s efforts to reduce Lucas to a humble status which, as a Southerner, the boy feels Lucas, as a Negro, should assume, carries over its meaning to the later-scenes in the picture; and we know that the actions of the others in the story – the crowd gathered in the square, the solid citizens like the Mallisons, and even Chick’s lawyer uncle, John Stevens – are doomed to failure.’ (Jones 58) It is this poignant moment in the film on which Lucas and Chick’s relationship is based. Due to Lucas’s hospitality, Chick feels that he must repay him; not for Lucas’s act of kindness for that is not how Chick sees it, but because that is how society dictates black and white people must behave toward each other. In Chick’s world, Lucas must be paid for what he did; he can not accept is an act of generosity or friendship. Consequently, when Lucas is accused of murdering Vinson Gowrie, he
asks Chick to get his uncle. By doing so, Chick tries to free himself of his debt to Lucas, and, more importantly, of his own guilt and shame. When lawyer John Stevens meets Lucas, he immediately assumes that he is guilty, yet it is interesting to notice the body language between the two men when Stevens visits him in his cell. He tells Lucas that he will neither help nor defend him, and leaves believing that Lucas wanted to tell him a lie. Within this scene we are not sure who is in control. At one point, Lucas reverses the questioning process and asserts himself over Stevens. It is always apparent that Lucas knows Stevens better than Stevens knows Lucas. Heller explains that ‘a reversal has taken place, and true identities are known. Lucas is innocent and Stevens is guilty. Already at a disadvantage, Stevens tries to persuade Lucas to name the murderer. Lucas will not condemn a man he has not seen as did Stevens and the rest of the community. Lucas’s refusal has the advantage of complicating the plot and maintaining suspense at a critical point, but it also carries moral weight. It emphasises the contrast between Lucas as an accused innocent and Stevens as a representative of the community.’ (Heller) To add to the tense questioning and supposition, the use of lighting in this scene is remarkable. When Stevens enters Lucas’s cell, he finds the old man asleep on the cot, with his face covered by a newspaper to screen it from the glaring light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling above. Stevens removes the paper, exposing Lucas to the light. ‘From that moment on’, explains Fadiman, ‘Lucas on centre stage is illuminated by the light. His enormous eyes follow Stevens as he paces back and forth, improvising his totally erroneous version of the crime. The interplay of light and shadow on the faces of the two men takes on a symbolic significance in which Lucas is identified with light and Stevens with shadow. Stevens’s nervous pacing frequently carries him out of the light, and occasionally casts a shadow over parts of
Lucas’s face. When the lawyer passes in front of Lucas, he obscures him entirely, and throws his own distorted shadow-image on the wall of the cell.’ (Fadiman 70) The single bulb hanging from the ceiling just above Lucas gives him an innocent and angelic look, as it illuminates him in the dark cell. Visually, this indicates Lucas’s innocence to the viewers. However, Stevens and Chick are not convinced of his innocence and Chick even suggests a motif as to why Lucas would have killed Vinson Gowrie. This story takes place in the local store and in a voice-over, Chick introduces the scene which is then dramatized on the screen. The Gowrie boys are present, Fraser’s son, and Lucas. Lucas will not even bother to look at the men loafing around Fraser’s store, who eye him with overt hostility. Close-ups show both Crawford and Vinson Gowrie glaring at Lucas with contempt. Lucas’s impassive demeanour and his total silence further incite Vinson’s rage. When Vinson tries to assault Lucas, Chick, tensely watchful, steps forward but finds his knife frozen in his hand. Although Fraser’s son averts the attack and prevents further violence, it is Lucas’s slow, deliberate, and dignified movement that controls the pace of the scene. Along with the use of lighting, there is a correlation between the effect of the dissolves and the general coloration of the film. Having begun directing pictures in the silent era, Brown placed a great deal of importance on telling a story visually, and there are many instances in the film which demonstrate his capacity to think in visual terms rather than relying on dialogue to make a point. ‘Using black-and-white film on the subject of Negro-white relations, a more conventional director probably would have chosen to stress the contrasts. But Brown worked against the obvious by blending the black and white into variegated greys. He dresses most of his actors in clothes which photograph in the range of grey. Several of his landscapes and skies look bleak and grey. This lack of strong contrasts between the white and black tones
is reinforced by lap dissolves, which fuse the image and break down sharp colour distinctions…The colour tones of the film can be used to describe the blending of white and black people in the community of Jefferson.’ (Fadiman 80) Throughout the film, Brown uses the image of the eye, which signifies its theme of perception. Appropriately, the key image is the enormous close-up of the allseeing eye of Lucas Beauchamp, peering through the iron, crisscross bars of his prison cell. The shot follows Chick Mallison’s protest that he cannot carry out Lucas’s instructions to dig up the body because it is already too late. As in the novel, Lucas replies “I’ll try to wait”, but to the multiple ironies of that line, the film adds the close-up of the eye. By means of a dissolve, this image lingers on the screen and blends into the next image of Chick running from the jail and unexpectedly encountering Crawford Gowrie. The eye-image and the dissolve thus work together to convey the impression that Lucas foresees and oversees all. It is during this intimate scene between Chick and Lucas in which Brown uses particularly interesting and significant camera work. Lucas looks through the bars, and we see one large eye as he tells Chick to go to the cemetery. Then, we are inside the cell looking out at Chick’s eye as he reacts. Next we look at the bars from the outside where Chick’s and Lucas’s hands contrast on the bars as if both were prisoners. According to Heller, ‘a dilemma is raised by these shots, one that reverberates throughout the film. On the personal level, Lucas is more literally a prisoner because he is locked up and threatened with death. On the social level the roles also are mixed. On which side of the bars is the jail? Who is the victim, and who is the criminal?’ (Heller) It is impossible to tell who is imprisoned and Brown suggests that there is a mutual obligation between Chick and Lucas to free each other.
As previously mentioned, Brown dressed most of his actors in a range of grey, yet it is Lucas’s clothing which is very striking. He carries with him a group of characterising emblems: a hat like his white grandfather’s, a gold toothpick, a gold watch chain, and the pistol purchased from his grandfather. By wearing these clothes, Lucas reflects the tragic contradiction inherent in the position of the Negro today: ‘although a free man in a free society, he is not yet fully accepted by that society because of the colour of his skin; naturally, he wishes that he were white and, therefore, emulates the white man; but in so doing he unwittingly accepts and reinforces the idea of white supremacy which has set him apart.’ (Jones 59) 1 The community’s frustrated efforts to make him act like a “nigger” or “Sambo” just once in his life sound an alarm about race relations in the South. Lucas obviously refuses to play neo-Sambo. Matthews believes that ‘instead, he forces the dominant discourse to contradict itself. He is the descendent of both white plantation master and slave, the Negro heir and successor within the family of whites….by insisting on being treated as a white black, Lucas demonstrates the impossibility that racial enfranchisement will ever take place within a discourse of homogeneity and binary discrimination.’ (Matthews) The town’s effort to make Lucas act like a “nigger” backfires, forcing the town to reassess its assumptions about identities, including its own. In refusing to name the murderer because he has not seen the crime, Lucas acts according to the highest human ideals in spite of the stereotypical expectations of the community. ‘Lucas shows the town how it should have acted and obliges it to imitate
1 In the 1920s and 30s racial Radicalism had largely been supplanted by a Conservatism less concerned with racial threat. Though lynchings flared up in periods of economic depression, the South’s violence was directed increasingly at foreign immigrants rather than blacks.
him. Not only are the townspeople indebted to him, but they are forced, as Stevens is forced, to admit that Lucas has shown them a proper mode of behaviour, much as Chick was forced to admit that Lucas’s refusal of payment for hospitality was proper.’ (Heller) Lucas has become the keeper of their conscience if that means he has embodied an ideal and has put them in a position where they are obliged to imitate him. This interpretation does not justify so much as explain the last scene. After Lucas has paid Stevens’s two-dollar charge for the broken pipe, there is a final exchange of penetrating glances between the two men. Stevens asks Lucas why he did not tell him the truth that night in the jail. Lucas looks directly at the lawyer and asks “Would you have believed me?” This time, it is Stevens, not Chick, who lowers his eyes. The film ends on a more positive note than in the novel, making Lucas into a symbol of the black man striving for equality. Lucas Beauchamp is a remarkable character in film and literature history and Intruder in the Dust stands out among other films of its period with its refusal to stoop to any form of condescension towards its black characters or to rationalize the behaviour of the bigots. Though produced by MGM, the film wisely displays none of that studio's patented glossiness, opting instead for a dusty, sun-scorched, flea-bitten veneer that enhances the film's basic realism. ‘At the preview Louis Mayer became very upset and demanded changes, complaining that “the picture was about a colored man who had no respect for white people, that the man [didn’t] remove his hat in the presence of white people or say ‘no, sir’ or ‘yes, sir’, and that he [was] just too independent.”’ (Fadiman 37) Regardless of his complaints, the Memphis Board of Censors approved the picture. Intruder in the Dust presents us with Hollywood's first black separatist movie hero. As Juano Hernandez plays Lucas, he is a truly towering figure: independent,
proud, testy, outspoken and resilient. It is an impressive performance, one of the strongest in the history of blacks in American films. He won two European awards for his work, but in the United States his performance, while appreciated by many critics, generally went unnoticed and was forgotten soon afterward. The same was true of this vastly underrated film.
Works Cited Fadiman, Regina. Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust: Novel into Film. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1978. Heller, Terry. “Intruders in the Dust: The Representation of Racial Problems in Faulkner's Novel and in the MGM Film Adaptation.” 10 April 2006. < http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/essays/intruder.htm> Jones, Dorothy. William Faulkner: Novel into Film. Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television. 1953 (Fall) Vol 8 (i) Matthews, John T. “Faulkner, Modernism, and the Discourse of Racism in Intruder in the Dust.” 6 April 2006. <http://www.uhb.fr/faulkner/resources/articles/matthews.html> Phillips, Gene D. Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1988.
Works Consulted Bone, Jane and Ron Johnson. Understanding the Film: An Introduction to Film Appreciation. Illinois: National Textbook, 1991. Davis, Thadious M. Faulkner’s “Negro”: Art and the Southern Context. London: Louisiana UP, 1983. Degenfelder, Pauline E. The Film Adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television. 1973. Ellison, Ralph. The Shadow and the Act. New York: Random House, 1995. Kartinger, Donald M,. ed. Faulkner in Cultural Context: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1995. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997.
Published on Mar 21, 2010
Published on Mar 21, 2010
Intruder in the Dust: An Analysis of the representation of Lucas Beauchamp in Brown’s film of Intruder in the Dust, with reference to perfor...