This past week, writing about the passing of film critic Judith Crist, I mentioned a 1970 TV movie called My Sweet Charlie. Today, we received word that the star of that film, Al Freeman, Jr., has also passed at the age of 78, in Washington, D.C., where he was a member of the faculty of Howard University.
Other obituaries for Freeman will talk about his roles in Malcolm X and One Life to Live, his awards and his career as a professor at Howard. I want to talk about My Sweet Charlie. It was so long ago and so incredibly powerful.
The movie was based on a novel by David Westheimer, directed by Lamont Johnson and broadcast on NBC on January 20, 1970. Back then, the three broadcast networks showed theatrical films and a handful of films created just for television. Most of the TV movies were forgettable, but there were the rare ones, like Charlie and That Certain Summer that broke barriers theatrical films were reluctant to attack.
Patty Duke played Marlene Chambers, an uneducated, bigoted, Southern white teenager, shunned by family and boyfriend because she is pregnant. She broke into a boarded-up coastal Texas vacation house for shelter. Al Freeman, Jr., played Charlie Roberts, a New York City lawyer and civil rights activist who is running from a false murder charge. He finds Marlene when he also breaks into the vacant house to hide. At first, their encounter is bitter, hate-filled, suspicious and contemptuous. Slowly, as they come to depend on each other for survival, and as Marlene’s pregnancy progresses badly, they come to respect each other. They forge a real friendship that ends when Charlie is found and killed by the pursuing Texas lawmen, who do not hesitate to accuse him of molesting Marlene, just because of the color of their skin.
The roles, in 1970, were risky for both Duke and Freeman because any hint of a friendship between a white woman and a black man was cause for uproar out of certain portions of our society. Though Duke was a darling of America, from her breakout role as Helen Keller to her success on television in The Patty Duke Show, this was a decidedly adult role, and one that crossed acceptable lines. Freeman risked the kind of backlash that was leveled against any black man who dared smile at a white woman. We were not that far from the hate-mail and death threats that had plagued two Broadway shows about interracial relationships. And this was television, not theatrical films. People could choose to ignore a movie, but television was in their living rooms, in their homes, and they got caught up in My Sweet Charlie before they knew what they were watching.
My Sweet Charlie took the hate, the violence, the riots, the confrontations of the civil rights movement and put it in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a single house, forced us to look at our prejudices, at both sides of our prejudices. It made us see how interacting with one another as individuals instead of as groups changed the whole dynamic of the race question. To call My Sweet Charlie a “landmark film” is an understatement. It changed the conversation about race relations. When whole scenes from a movie stay with you for 42 years, that’s powerful filmmaking. It is a long way from where we are today, from the resurgence of racism that the election of President Obama has seemed to justify.
Albert Cornelius Freeman, Jr., was a talented and accomplished actor, a respected teacher and passionate activist. But for me, he was not Elijah Muhammed or a police chief on a soap opera. For me, Al Freeman, Jr., will always be My Sweet Charlie.