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Perfect Harmony, a film (1991)

 

This is a Disney film done in the old tradition of films suitable and heartwarming to the whole family.  The film is set during the late 1950’s, in the deep south at a boy’s school in Alabama.  The school is the Blanton Boys Academy and its specialty is its pre-adolescent boy’s choir that sings the music of Handel and Haydn.  The academy is all-white but the employees in the academy are often black.  The conflict in the film centers around a young black boy (Landy) who comes to live with his grandfather after the death of his parents, and a young white boy (Taylor) who becomes interested in the black boy because of his music.  Another interesting dynamic in the film is a white music instructor from Boston, hired by the school headmaster who is a typical southern white bigot.

 

An added character in the film is a rebellious white boy (Paul), whose wealthy parents are too busy to come visit him on parent’s day.  He takes out his feelings of rejection and disappointment on two people; one, a white student who is from the north (a Yankee) and Landy who works at the school with his grandfather.  The boys in the academy are competing for the honor of being “lead boy” in the choir. (The lead boy sings a solo during the commencement exercises at the end of the year.)   The headmaster subtly urges the music teacher to nominate Paul for the position.  While Paul is a gifted singer, his anger and bigotry are a big turn-off for the teacher, yet as a new instructor hoping for a permanent assignment, he finds himself in a difficult position.

 

The ethical and moral conflicts brought out in the film, along with the juxtaposition of black music and instruments with classical music of the 1700’s makes for a worthwhile film.  For a white boy raised in a predominately white section of Los Angeles, I also found the film to be a real eye opener about the conditions in the south during the 50’s, and the subservient position held by black people in the Deep South.  I really had no clue about “separate but equal” positions held by segregationists or how deeply divided the south was over race until I was well into my adult years.  One of the conflicts in the film is over the use of swimming facilities.  The white boys and teachers from the Blanton school swim in the municipal pool, while the black boys swim in the river.  During the course of the film, the black minister petitions the mayor to allow the black boys to swim in the pool, as the river’s fast moving current is considered unsafe for the smaller boys.  The mayor explains in condescending tones “Son, we have no facilities here for coloreds.”  As a result, a small black boy drowns in the river and the blacks unite in a boycott of the town’s white owned businesses.  The whites respond by bombing the black church.

 

The friendship between Taylor and Landy is interesting and instructive to watch.  Taylor teaches Landy to sing Handel, while Landy introduces Taylor to the music of the blues, played on harmonica, fiddle, washtub, and even a broom. Taylor is conflicted knowing his friendship with Landy will result in Paul’s anger and the possible disapproval of the school leadership, particularly the headmaster.  Taylor gets caught coming back from Rivertown (the black section of town) late one evening, and is called on the carpet by the headmaster in the presence of his music teacher.  Taylor admits that he was with Landy.  The headmaster’s daughter, who is forming a friendship with the music teacher, says “but he’s colored”.  Taylor tells the headmaster he is fascinated by the music of the black people, though it is very different from the music of Haydn and Handel.  After Taylor leaves, the headmaster forbids the music teacher from choosing Taylor Bradshaw as lead boy.  The music teacher chooses Taylor anyway, risking his job at the school because he has seen how the influence and broadening of Taylor’s horizons beyond the bigotry of the white south has done him a great deal of good and made him a better person for it.

 

At the climax of the film, Landy invites Taylor to come hear the music of Scrapper Johnson, a renown black blues singer who has come to town to help raise money to replace the destroyed church.  But Taylor has been chosen lead boy and he is afraid to risk losing it.  Landy is of course hurt, but Taylor later on feels he must go with his friend, and he gets one of the more tolerant fellow students to cover for him while he goes to concert.  Paul finds out about the deception and determines to injure Taylor, both out of jealousy for losing the lead boy position, and hatred for Taylor because of his friendship with Landy.  Because Taylor is injured, he cannot sing in the graduation ceremony, and Paul thinks the honor will go to him.  But instead, and to the consternation of many in the audience, the black boy Landy (a remarkable picture in white robes) is chosen to lead the singing at graduation.  His beautiful voice blends in marvelously with the other boys in the choir and even the headmaster is touched.

 

Some may consider this film simplistic and overly sentimental about the complexities of race in America and how it affects children in school, particularly in the south.  Nevertheless, I found the film to be entertaining and thought provoking.  The ethical conflicts placed before the music teacher I felt were realistic, as his desire to retain his position is placed in conflict with his sense of right and wrong.  The multiple conflicts between young white and young black who find a common bond in music I thought were very instructive.  I also found the film to be a great help in understanding the depth of resentment felt by blacks who were patronized and talked down to, and the difference displayed between older blacks (Landy’s grandfather) and younger blacks (the minister).   I also greatly enjoyed the masterfully performed singing by the boys whose voices have not yet changed.  I highly recommend this film to any teacher, particularly those like myself who were raised far away from the racial conflicts of the south.