Sixty years ago, the film Bad Day At Black Rock was released. Spencer Tracy played John Macreedy, a stranger with a paralyzed arm, who steps off a train into a desolate, dusty town called Black Rock. He’s cryptic when asked why he’s there, and is met with reactions ranging from suspicion to assault. Both Macreedy and Black Rock have a past and a secret. Black Rock opened in 1955, with anti-Japanese sentiments running high in the wake of World War II. I was born three years later, and first saw the movie when I was ten. I watched the credits with a charged focus, and when the writer’s name “Millard Kaufman” hit the screen, I applauded for my father.
Growing up in the film industry, I knew all the factors that lurked, ready to pounce, to derail a motion picture. Lack of chemistry among the actors. A director with more accolades than talent. An overly intrusive producer. Not to mention substance abuse, overblown egos and narcissism run amok. Logistics can go sideways at every juncture. But Black Rock beat the odds. In spite of the inevitable bumps along the way, everything fell into place. Dad was nominated for an Academy Award and the film is considered a classic.
But in my mind, what sets this work apart is not the near-miss-Oscar or the My-Daddy-Wrote-A-Classic. I’m most proud that during this sad chapter in United States history, wrought with anti-Japanese paranoia, Bad Day At Black Rock has a silent hero: a Japanese-American man. Dad wrote the script in protest of the treatment of Japanese-Americans – the bigotry, the violence, the internment camps. Sure, Dad’s Oscar nomination was a nice bonus, but he was deeply moved when the Japanese government honored him for his dignified treatment of a Japanese man in the film, and for his voice fighting bigotry.
Dad was a fighter. He joined the Marines and fought Hitler. He fought with another marine who made an anti-Semitic remark, and knocked him cold. As a commanding officer, he fought for the Marines “caught” with other Marines, pulling them out of the brig. Back home from the tropics, he fought Malaria and Dengue Fever. As a young screenwriter in Hollywood, he fought Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
I was raised with several definitions for the word “fight.” The weapon of choice can be a gun, a fist, or a pen. Bravery can mean storming the beaches of Okinawa, pulling gay men out of confinement, standing up for a blacklisted colleague, writing for the rights of the oppressed, speaking for those who are silenced. For most of his life, my father’s weapon of choice was the written word. Language can be strangely powerful – letters strung together, to create thoughts, to convey ideas, to engage, to incite – a catalyst for change. I was raised to treat each person’s voice as uniquely valuable. I was brought up to listen carefully not only to sounds, but also to silence. I was taught that taking away another’s voice is an act of violence.
Throughout my childhood, I loved to curl up in my father’s favorite chair, with his leather-bound copy of Bad Day At Black Rock. Like the film, the script remains vibrant, sixty years later. Over the decades, the black ink has faded to dark gray and the cream-colored paper has become tinged with age. But if I close my eyes, I can still breathe the scent of the leather, touch the warmth of the cover, and feel an odd pulse – my father’s voice raised loud and clear, for the voiceless.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a novelist and blogger. Amy wrote her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a rookie psych intern through her first year of training. Amy wrote Tightwire as a voice against the stigma of therapy, and to demonstrate the human capacity to heal. Amy blogs on a variety of subjects including parenting, LGBTQ+, gender equality and a Rolling Stones concert. She also collaborates with educators who include her books in their curriculum.
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