The last movie directed by the great William Wyler, The Liberation of L.B. Jones is one of several nervy race-relations pictures made in the wake of In the Heat of the Night (1967). Like that Oscar-winning film, L.B. Jones is s a thriller exploring the dangers of a black man seeking justice in the South, only this time the protagonist is not a cop or even a lawyer, but rather an undertaker. In a small Tennessee community, L.B. Jones (Roscoe Lee Browne) is the most affluent black citizen, which generates grudging respect from well-to-do whites and seething resentment among poor whites. When Jones discovers that his years-younger wife, Emma (Lola Falana), is sleeping with a white cop, simple-minded redneck Willie Joe (Anthony Zerbe), Jones’ attempt to amicably dissolve his marriage unexpectedly triggers a fusillade of horrific violence.
Based on a novel by Jesse Hill Ford, who co-wrote the script, the picture’s tricky plot weaves together nearly a dozen major characters, each of whom reflects a facet of racism or its impact. The formidable Lee J. Cobb plays Oman Hedgepath, the white lawyer Jones hires to handle the divorce; Hedgepath tries to resolve the matter outside of court by working angles with Willie Joe and the town’s do-nothing mayor (Dub Taylor), but he only makes matters worse. Lee Majors, of all people, plays Oman’s idealistic nephew, a clean-cut voice of reason whose words are drowned out by pervasive prejudice. And in the picture’s linchpin role, a very young Yaphet Kotto plays Sonny Boy, an angry young black man who has returned to his hometown after a long absence because he wants revenge against the racist white who beat him as a child. Barbara Hershey pops up in a tiny role as Majors’ wife, and dancer Fayard Nicholas, of the famed Nicholas Brothers, appears as well, in his only dramatic performance.
Amazingly, The Liberation of L.B. Jones doesn’t feel overstuffed, although some actors are left gasping for screen time; the clockwork script allocates time wisely, sketching characters just well enough for viewers to understand why people choose their paths. Wyler orchestrates the various elements so that when things get ugly, horrible events explode like the stages of carefully coordinated fireworks display. Not everything that happens in the picture is credible, and the material portraying Emma as a capricious nymphomaniac is stereotypical, but The Liberation of L.B. Jones is filled with memorable nuances. It’s also filled with memorable acting, because the film’s cast offers a spectrum of performance styles. Browne is elegant and nuanced; Cobb is fiery and intense; Zerbe is wonderfully squirrely and perverse; and Kotto bounces between sweet and menacing, effectively portraying the wounded boy within the dangerous man. As for Falana, she’s so sexy that it’s easy to see why the men in her life are driven to distraction. (Available through Columbia Screen Classics via WarnerArchive.com)
The Liberation of L.B. Jones: GROOVY