The 1959 Film That Dared to Suggest the Possible End of Whiteness

Film class for movie lovers, minus the homework.
Aug. 3 2014 11:59 PM

The End of Whiteness?

A 1959 film imagines a post-apocalyptic world where the sole survivors are a black guy, a white woman … and a white man.

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Welcome to the Slate Screening Room! In this new video series, Aisha Harris and Slate culture staff will delve deeply into the world of movies, from the obscure to the iconic, from the beloved to the loathed or just plain misunderstood. Think of it as a fun film class without all of the rigorous academic homework assignments and meaningless grades.

We’re all familiar with the post-apocalyptic, last-man-on-Earth scenario so frequently employed within the sci-fi genre. But one of the more intriguing entries within the canon is the lesser-known 1959 film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil—the first film of its kind to explicitly tackle the subject of race. The film stars Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer as the last people on Earth.* And this being 1959 America, the stakes are especially high, because as the film’s premise implies, the fate—and more pressingly, the complexion—of the human race lies in the hands of a black man, white woman, and white man.

In the Slate Screening Room, we’ll take a look at how The World, the Flesh and the Devil deals with the rigid social hierarchy of race and gender, as well as the conflicting desires of each of its characters.

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The film falls a bit short, not delivering fully on its early promise to probe racial tensions in a meaningful way—it’s still 1959 Hollywood, after all. But it does make for a fascinating viewing. And if you haven’t seen it yet or would like to revisit it, it’s available to stream now.

Correction, Aug. 4, 2014: This article misidentified the actor Mel Ferrer as Jose Ferrer. (Return.)

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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