At this late date, On the Waterfront occupies a peculiar space in popular culture – hopefully, it’ll become more bizarre after reading this.
Apart from the fact that the 1954 film being considered a towering achievement in post war work in features, it stars Marlon Brando at what most consider to be the peak of his career. Certainly there were early appearances the act might have touted as the pinnacle of his filmography. But The Godfather and Apocalypse Now were still to come a few decades on.
Either way, Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan who would basically find himself ostracized by the Hollywood cognoscenti after testifying in-front of HUAC. Turning in your friends seems like a raw deal. He could have been blacklisted, but still. So, with his career petering out after becoming a turn coat, we can look at this feature in a unique light.
It dealt with group think, unions and the pervasive power structure within a specific industry – here it’s the docks and dock workers. Brando’s character gets himself in a mess by being passive and watching what most would have assumed to be his day laboring brother get off’d. What’s worse is that Brando’s character was kind of sweet on the guy’s sister. Regardless of all that, the end of the film details the eventual reordering of the power structure down on the docks.
Surely, there’s some way to understand the entirety of the film as some rumination on freedom – that pigeon coop goes a long way towards making that argument. There’s the issue of making one’s own way in the world and figuring out who’s beholden to who. And while all of that’s important to not just this specific film, but life in a general sense, race accidentally finds its way worked into the entire mess.
He’s not present more than a few minutes in total, but a recurring black character finds himself appearing shoulder to shoulder with other dock workers. He has a few speaking lines and none of it has anything to do with being subservient to white folks who have the same lot life as he does. Remember it’s 1954 and in a huge portion of the country, a black guy might still get his head kicked in for using the wrong bathroom, restaurant or water fountain. But what makes all of this even more remarkable is the fact that a few scenes find the guy interacting with a white women.
Kazan’s going to remain a vilified character in Hollywood history, but maybe he saw something that almost no one else did at the time.