In some ways more relevant than ever, the made-for-TV drama My Sweet Charlie pairs the plight of unwed mothers with the struggles of black men caught up in racial violence. To its great credit, the picture eschews the histrionic approach one might expect considering the subject matter. My Sweet Charlie is a sensitive story about tolerance and tragedy, somewhat in the vein of Harper Lee’s enduring 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its famous 1962 film adaptation. While My Sweet Charlie is nowhere near as ambitious, as moving, or as poetic as the Lee novel or the 1962 film, My Sweet Charlie can be experienced as a continuation of the conversations about humanism, ignorance, race, and the twisted path of justice that Lee’s novel sparked. In both projects, a good man’s survival depends on the ability of a Southern community to surmount ingrained prejudice, and a naïve young woman learns painful lessons about the world by watching that good man contemplate the possibility of premature mortality.
Based on a novel and play by David Westheimer, My Sweet Charlie takes place on the Gulf coast of Texas. Unsophisticated teenager Marlene Chambers (Patty Duke) arrives in a tiny town, breaking into an empty vacation home and using it as a refuge. The backstory is that she ran away from home after her unforgiving father discovered she was pregnant. Marlene isn’t sure what to do, occasionally succumbing to the magical-thinking notion that she can somehow will her pregnancy out of existence. One night, another individual breaks into the same house. He’s Charlie Roberts (Al Freeman Jr.), and to Marlene’s horror, he’s black. Yet Charlie is infinitely worldlier than Marlene. He’s a New York lawyer who travelled to the South to participate in a Civil Rights protest, only to stumble into a tragic situation when a brawl with white bigots spiraled out of control. His options are as limited and unappealing as Marlene’s. Charlie’s erudition wears down Marlene’s resistance, as does her recognition that they can benefit from each other’s help. An unlikely friendship forms, but even though the setup is contrived, the character dynamics feel believable and organic.
My Sweet Charlie is a story from a different time, treating the notion that blacks and whites can overcome their differences if they embrace their commonalities like something groundbreaking, but there’s a certain toughness to the piece that keeps My Sweet Charlie from feeling preachy or schematic. Both characters are treated with respect, so neither Marlene’s pregnancy nor Charlie’s situation is oversimplified. Moreover, a painful truth about American race relations underscores the whole story, because everyone onscreen knows that authorities won’t shoot Marlene for her infraction of social codes, whereas Charlie cannot expect the same leniency. Duke, who earned one of this film’s three Emmys for her performance, taps the same depths that won her an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1963), while Freeman, who was nominated for an Emmy, infuses his performance with a complex mixture of amusement, bitterness, pride, and wistfulness. Under the sure hand of director Lamont Johnson, Duke and Freeman paint a delicate picture of human connection to the accompaniment of Gil Melle’s emotive musical scoring.
My Sweet Charlie: GROOVY