True story of the first black family to buck the “restrictive covenants” that tacitly prevented non-whites from moving into white neighborhoods, “The Color of Courage” highlights what happens when a (white) Detroit housewife befriends newcomers her bigoted neighbors are intent on eliminating. A nicely mounted and painlessly educational period drama set in 1944, pic benefits from an attractive and appealing cast buffeted by the creepy built-in tension of self-righteous racism practiced in America not all that long ago. Pic’s topic makes it an excellent candidate for quality TV slots where its enlightening message will reach the widest audience.
Light-skinned black journalist Mac McGhee (a perfectly cast Roger Guenveur Smith) has been “passing” for a dozen years at a paper where his co-workers assume he’s “Sicilian or Spanish but not colored.” When Mac gets first crack at a classified ad for a house in an all-white enclave, his wife Minnie (Lynn Whitfield) — gorgeous, sophisticated and unmistakably black — has reservations about staking a claim where they’re certain to be unwelcome. The family moves in under cover of night.
Next-door neighbor Anna (Linda Hamilton) welcomes Minnie with a cake she saved ration coupons to bake. Her husband, Benjamin (Bruce Greenwood), a laborer with a strong patriarchal sense, refuses to let Anna work, although their modest income will never put them on a par with the rest of the neighborhood, whose well-to-do ladies have their pearls on by 8 a.m. There is an immediate, unforced bond between down-to-earth Anna and unpretentious Minnie, who works at the Post Office in addition to raising her boys.
Conscious of property values, other neighbors enlist Benjamin to convince Mac he’d best retreat. The McGhees hold their ground and Benjamin, thinking it will raise his stock in the hoity-toity community, is subtly coerced into filing an injunction.
A sensibly structured tale of gradual alliances under difficult circumstances , the movie, researched and written by the real-life Mac and Minnie’s granddaughter, makes a potent case for sticking up for what’s right, whatever the consequences. The landmark case went to the Supreme Court, where it was argued by a young NAACP lawyer, future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. But although the film’s narrative leads up to that far-from-certain civil rights breakthrough, pic is primarily a well-delineated story of friendship between underdogs struggling to defy the status quo.
Subplots sometimes pour on extra problems a little too thick, but story is engaging enough to survive the digressions. Jane Fonda once held an option on the script, which was finally greenlighted after the female leads signed on. Production design and costuming are neat and evocative, despite the puny budget.