William Wyler is the most nominated director in Academy Awards history, as well as the only director in Academy history to direct three Best Picture-winning films (for which he also won Best Director*), for directing thirty-six Oscar-nomimated performers and for being the director of more Best Picture nominees than anyone else.
For his final movie, he decided on a script by Jesse Hill Ford and Stirling Silliphant that was in turn based on Ford’s 1965 novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones. While a work of fiction, it was based on an actual event that had happened in Humboldt, Tennessee, where Ford lived. This movie did him no favors in that town**. Silliphant’s life may not have been so turbulent, but he did write The SIlent Flute with Bruce Lee, as well as the film he won an Oscar for writing, In the Heat of the Night.
The titular L.B. Jones (Roscoe Lee Browne) is a wealthy funeral director in Tennessee looking for a lawyer to represent him in his divorce from his much younger wife Emma (Lola Falana), who is having an affair with police officer Willie Joe Worth (Anthony Zerbe) which has left her with child.
The problem is that Jones is black and Worth is white.
Worth begs Emma not to contest the divorce, but she wants to keep living the moneyed life she has become accustomed to. Worth ends up beating her and then works with his partner Stanley Bumpas (Arch Johnson) to arrest Jones after he refuses to drop his case. Yet the man becomes shocked at what he’s done and at how cold Bumpas is as he goes about making the crime look like black-on-black crime.
Worth is willing to goto jail, but the crime is covered up by attorney Oman Hedgepath (Lee J. Cobb), but justice somewhat wins out, as Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kottot) gets revenge for a beating he endured by killing Bumpas. Hedgepath loses the love of his family, with his nephew Steve (Lee Majors) leaving the firm and taking his wife Nella (Barbara Hershey in one of first roles) away from all of this madness.
There is a major moment in film history here. This film marks the first time that a black man killed a white man on screen in an American movie.It was also the debut of both Falana and Brenda Sykes. And it has blood the color of an Italian horror movie.
*Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives and Ben-Hur.
**Ford dealth with numerous threats, mainly from white residents of Humboldt, when it came to this story and the ensuring movie, as well as his second book,The Feast of St. Barnabas. When black players were barred from the high school football team post-integraton, Ford’s son, the team captain, began to receive death threats of his own. This may be the reason why Ford shot a 19-year-old black soldier, Pvt. George Henry Doaks Jr., when he saw the man’s car in his private driveway and believed he was someone out to hurt his son. In a strange moment of fate, Doaks’ female companion was related to the woman who had served as the basis for this story. He was initially indicted on a charge of first degree murder but, in what could be cruel irony, he benefitted from the same Southern justice he had written against. All along, he claimed that he had fired his rifle and not aimed, hoping to scare off the car. The incident pretty much ruined his life and he never finished another novel. His life took him on a journey from liberal to far right conservative, writing for the USA Today, in which he defended Oliver North and complained about the ACLU. After a book of his letters was published and he went through open heart surgery, he grew depresse and shot himself in 1996.
You can watch this on Tubi.