American Love Stories

Press Info
Dig DeeperStoriesDialoguesTV Series


Interracial relationships have never been the American norm, but movies and TV are filled
with examples of those who crossed racial lines in the name of love, family and friendship.

When AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE's new 10-hour documentary series by Jennifer Fox premieres Sunday, September 12, 1999 through Thursday, September 16 from 9 to 11 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), it will explore the family life and love of an interracial couple and their children who, until now, have experienced happiness and hardship in relative anonymity. But the series' debut offers a timely reminder that interracial romance, marriage and platonic loyalties have long prompted Hollywood to offer tales of both transcendence and caution. From the happy dances of Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in sweetheart classics like The Littlest Rebel, to Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in West Side Story as star-crossed Puerto Rican and American lovers, to the TV classic The Jeffersons that got laughs for George's insults to his interracial in-laws while scoring points for multiracial family values, movies and TV shows have frequently illustrated diversity in love.

Guess who's coming to Hollywood?

Sidney Poitier was filmdom's leading interracial role model in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with The Defiant Ones, in which he and Tony Curtis starred as escaped convicts who overcome their mutual fear and loathing in order to survive, and build a true friendship in the process. The film became a classic and paved the way for a host of other black-and-white-buddy-films, from the Lethal Weapon movies with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, to the current Wild Wild West starring Kevin Kline, and Will Smith - who also teamed up with Jeff Goldblum to save the world from alien invaders in Independence Day.

Groundbreaker Poitier then went on to perform star turns as a sensitive black man who befriends an abused white blind girl in A Patch of Blue (with Elizabeth Hartman), and a dashing young black professional who woos and wins the daughter of white liberals in the classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (with Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Hepburn's niece Katharine Houghton as his bride). While Poitier made other important film statements about friendship and leadership in Lilies of the Field and To Sir With Love, it was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, released at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, that was the first Hollywood movie to boldy suggest that love, commitment and family might be more important than racial differences.

That was also the message, albeit in a more bittersweet story, in the British A Taste of Honey, which put Rita Tushingham in the family way after a brief romance with a black sailor. Rejected by her outraged mother, she decides to raise the baby on her own with the help of a fellow outcast, a white gay man, and together they create a loving if unconventional family. But earlier films often offered sadder endings. In Sayonara, Marlon Brando and Red Buttons portrayed American servicemen stationed in Japan during the Korean War who fall in love with Japanese women (Miiko Taka and Miyoshi Umeki, respectively). Both Buttons and Umeki won Best Supporting Oscars as the couple who commit suicide together, rather than be parted by the disapproving military. In Raintree County, Elizabeth Taylor goes mad as a Civil War-era southern belle convinced that her mammy is really her mommy. And in The Great White Hope, James Earl Jones is the championship boxer driven to professional defeat and personal humiliation for marrying a white woman (Jane Alexander) - a story based on the real-life traumas of boxing great Jack Johnson.

Happiness continued to be elusive in A Majority of One, in which Alec Guiness and Rosalind Russell are an aging Asian and American couple forced to return to their individual loneliness because they can't handle the social ramifications of their personal affection. And two versions of Imitation of Life - one with Claudette Colbert in the 1930s, and another that revived the career of Lana Turner in the 1950s - were tear-jerkers about the downfall of a white-skinned girl who rejects her black mother and tries to "pass" for white, which leads to her undoing. The inescapable moral, as Liz Taylor frequently babbles in the afore-mentioned Raintree County, is that "All it takes is one little drop of niggra blood and you're a niggra, too."

But in more recent years, the upbeat ideas that mixed relationships can work and that families come in many combinations, have dominated films with mixed-race themes. Whoopi Goldberg has become the Sidney Poitier of her day, starring in numerous movies with a love-knows-no-barriers message. Among them: the romantic comedy Made in America with Ted Danson, in which a black woman who has a daughter by artificial insemination later meets - and falls in love with - the secret sperm donor, who is white; Corrina, Corrina, with Whoopi as a 1950s maid courted by the white widower (Ray Liotta) she works for; and Boys on the Side, with Whoopi as a lesbian who creates a powerful extended family with two straight white women, Mary Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore.

The power of friendship and the importance of family - whether extended, conventional or turned upside down - are also the core themes of several other films with multiracial plot lines. Goldberg turns up again in Clara's Heart, about a West Indian housekeeper who forms a fierce maternal bond with the young white son (Neil Patrick Harris) of a couple preoccupied by divorce. Chauffeur Morgan Freeman is the best friend that rich southern widow Jessica Tandy has in the lovely Driving Miss Daisy. And in the poignant Places in the Heart, Sally Field is a sheriff's widow in the Depression-era south who successfully becomes a cotton farmer thanks to a black drifter (Danny Glover), until the local Klan runs him out of town. In A Family Thing, Robert Duvall is a good ole' boy thrown into a mid-life crisis when he learns that his birth mother was a black servant raped by his father; Duvall journeys to Chicago to find his half-brother, James Earl Jones, and to his surprise also finds a new sense of family. A similar tale is told in the much-acclaimed British import, Secrets and Lies, which cast Brenda Blethyn as a white working-class woman who gives her out-of-wedlock daughter up for adoption, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as the black daughter who finds her - and new family ties - more than 20 years later.

Where no white man has gone before

On the home screen, interracial relationships were originally played for laughs or set in a more perfect future. In took until the fictional 23rd century before William Shatner as Capt. Kirk and Michele Nichols as Lt. Uhura shared TV's first interracial kiss on Star Trek in the late 1960s. Since then, humans of assorted races, as well as creatures from throughout the galaxy, have found true love together in Star Trek's various incarnations. Decades before, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were America's favorite TV couple - even though the famous redhead and her real-life Cuban husband encountered much public and industry flack for their multi-cultural union. And a few years before the trekkers started smooching, Bill Cosby and Robert Culp broke TV casting tradition when they co-starred as bantering pals and American agents of equal rank in I Spy.

In the 1970s, the TV phenomenon Roots shattered some of America's ignorance and naivete about its past and launched an era of greater visibility for African-Americans on TV. And while it was Diahann Carroll as Julia who was the first black star of a family-themed sitcom in the early 1960s, it was Bill Cosby who, in the 1980s, redefined mainstream America's view of modern African-American family life with The Cosby Show - a big hit that further opened doors for scores of sitcoms with black or more broadly integrated casts. The 1980s and early 1990s also saw the development of more fully integrated prime time dramas, from Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere and L.A. Law to NYPD Blue, Law and Order, Homicide and ER. These programs successfully went out of their way to showcase mixed friendships, black family life, and the occasional interracial romance. Given these successes, it's still a mystery to many TV critics that the acclaimed I'll Fly Away, with Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor as a white lawyer and his back maid, both coping with social and family changes in the 1950s south, failed to click with viewers.

Still, as a result of the many taboo-breaking programs that went before, contemporary TV characters more often enter into interracial relationships, and they do so with both greater ease and more frankly-voiced concern. One of the Sisters dated a black man, as did Ally McBeal, and mixed couples pop up from time to time on the soaps. On ER, Drs. Peter Benton and Elizabeth Corday (Eriq LaSalle and Alex Kingston) seemed to have more trouble with their conflicting schedules than their cultural differences. Real-life interracial couples appear frequently on the afternoon talk shows, as well as the new version of The Newlywed Game. And, if the production and debut of AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY are anything to go by, the modern media message seems increasingly to be that love and family can and should be color blind. Sixties singer Janis Ian would no doubt be pleased; Society's Child seems to be growing up.

# # #

Media Relations:

Fisher Company
914-674-6164 phone
914-674-6145 fax e-mail

Station Relations:

Bunny Tavares/ITVS
413 628-4067 phone
413 628-4656 fax e-mail

July 1999

Additional Press Materials:





by Karen Wilson and Bill Sims

by Cicily Wilson and Chaney Sims

A Brief History of Interracial Marriage and Race Classification in America


Partners   Produced by Web Lab

Copyright © 1999 by Zohe Film Productions and Web Lab