Spencer, the angry black teen in TAKE A GIANT STEP, goes home to a house that's large enough to need a staircase. Not only that. The family has....a housekeeper! And the housekeeper remarks that Spencer's room was a mess. Yes. Spencer has his own room upstairs. And Grandma has her own room upstairs. His father is a bank teller and his mother works for the Red Cross. This is a middle class black family in the late 1950s. I came from a family of five. Both our parents worked. I'm the oldest of three kids -- and I never had my own room until after I graduated from college.
But the story, with good intentions, still has valid points to make about race. The mother wants Spencer to be seen as being just as good as anybody else. The father says, "As good as anybody else is not good enough. Colored boys got to better than anybody else to wind up being as good as anybody else -- if you get what I mean."
Handsome, neat Spencer stands in his class. He's the only black student. The other students look at him. He glares at the teacher, takes his books and walks angrily out of the class. Then....he goes into the boy's restroom....and smokes. A cigar! Here, Spencer looks like one of those bad boys in Disney's PINOCCHIO right before they turn into donkeys. The janitor catches him and he's thrown out of school.
There are times when the writing is so odd that this seems like a lampoon of a 1950s race drama about teen life. This isn't REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and Johnny Nash is no James Dean. There are lines that are so wrong that they're entertaining. For instance, Grandma -- after she basically complimented Hitler -- wants to know why Spence feels so agitated. He answers that he's an outcast with those white buddies of his. He says to his grandmother, "...I cramp their style with the broads." Cigars and broads. This is a high school senior.
Spencer is upscale but his social etiquette leaves a lot to be desired. He's mastered the art of asking inappropriate questions. To get away from his parents for a while, he heads to the black side of town and goes to not just one..but two bars. And tries to get a drink. At the second bar, there are three tough-talking floozies trying to raise rent money. I love this section because wisecracks and insults peppered the dialogue. Spencer, holding his schoolbooks, sits down with the three women. He says, "Are you girls prostitutes or something?" One answers, "We're trying to be."
Spencer's cute but he's clueless. He's got a lot to learn. And he will get back home to his large house with a staircase and his own room. And a housekeeper. That brings me to my main reason to watch this. Two future Oscar nominees take this occasionally over-baked material and do something wonderful with their parts. Ruby Dee plays the housekeeper and Beah Richards (GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) plays Spencer's mother. They are excellent.
Keep in mind, this is a couple of years before Ruby Dee repeated her Broadway role in the film adaptation of A RAISIN IN THE SUN. As you watch Ruby in this 1959 film, think of the 1963 movie, HUD. Paul Newman played Hud and Patricia Neal won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Alma, the housekeeper. Hollywood studios and the production codes were still a bit timid about race back then. HUD was based on a novel by Larry McMurtry. In the book, Alma was a black woman. Patricia Neal was not a black actress but she sure earned that Academy Award for the film adaptation.
If Hollywood had not been so squeamish about interracial casting, Ruby Dee would have been an excellent choice to play Alma in HUD opposite Paul Newman. I wrote the same about her A RAISIN IN THE SUN co-star, Diana Sands.
TAKE A GIANT STEP. Not a great film, but it has moments -- and cast members -- worth watching. Here's the story's lead actor, Johnny Nash, as most of us remember him: