I've often wondered why George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, while celebrated for being a ground breaking horror film, is never celebrated as a breakthrough piece of movie making concerning African Americans in cinema.
One need only look back a year prior to NOLD at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to see that while Sydney Poitier did indeed bring a positive role model to the cinematic table in his performance as Dr. Prentice, the character needed to be black in order for the film to work (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner focused on a young white woman who brings her boyfriend home to meet the folks - said boyfriend is black; hilarity, does not necessarily, ensue).
One year later, when Duane Jones played Ben Hanser in Night of the Living Dead, his race was irrelevant to the film's plot. In fact, it's never even mentioned. It would seem that any kind of social relevance one gleans from NOLD is all in the eye of the beholder.
Watching the film today, one can't help but wonder what it must have been like for audiences in the late 60's to be presented with an African American as the lead of a motion picture that had nothing to do with race relations, social issues, or crime. Furthermore, none of the other characters in NOLD seem to react to Ben's race. Look at how Tom respectfully addresses him and listens to him for guidance, or the way spaced out Barbara trusts him. Even Mr. Cooper, with all his obnoxious bravado, seems more upset over the fact that his (admittedly correct) idea about hiding in the basement makes more sense than remaining in the living room and boarding up windows. One suspects that Mr. Cooper would have been at odds with anyone, regardless of his or her race, because he's just a disagreeable character.
I've often wondered what African American audiences might have thought about the film back in the day. Did they see Ben as the character who finally broke through the color wall?
Like I said earlier, any social relevance one gleans from NOLD is subjective. That said, it's hard not watch the film's denouement: Ben being shot by the red neck posse, his body being dragged by hooks from the house and placed on a funeral pyre; and not read some kind of violent racial overtones into it. However, according to the filmmakers, Ben's role was originally written for a white actor, and the only reason Jones got the part was because he gave the best audition. With that in mind, would the film's climax have felt as powerful had we watched a white character meet such an ignoble ending?