Foreign Student (1994)
By BB&W Crew guy, Jay Fenton (aka ‘Friends of Jay’)
Foreign Student is an exception to the rule that films showing interracial love and marriage must be set either in the present or during slavery and the Civil War. This film takes place during the 1950s in the deep South where racial prejudice is an accepted norm and the one drop rule was still boldly and openly enforced. Black girls were expected to lower their eyes in the presence of a white man or woman. In many ways it was a simpler time and yet backward in almost every sense of the word. Into this confusing milieu comes Philippe Leclerc, a French exchange student doing a semester at a small southern college (played by Marco Hofschneider most famous for his role in the German film, Europa, Europa). One of the things that stand out about this film is that the American colleges in the 1950’s stress the liberal arts rather than a business curriculum. One of the first people he meets in this secluded and sheltered world is April (played by Robin Givens). She realizes that he is different from the beginning by saying, “You’re not from around here are you?” He asks how she knew and she says, “Most white boys from around her can’t look a negro girl in the eyes.” For Philippe this makes no sense because in France black and white have mixed and married openly for quite awhile. Of all European countries, France has always been the most accepting of interracial friendships. Slavery was ended in the U. S. only 150 years ago. In France it was over many years before that and racial prejudice was against the Liberty, Equality, Fraternity motto of the French Revolution. Although France did not abolish slavery immediately after the revolution, abolition proponents in France pushed on until it was finally done away with a few years after.
April, however, knows nothing of the racial tolerance in France, and finds Philippe’s attentions to her charming but bewildering. She is a teacher and he asks to meet her after tomorrows school day ends. Philippe tries to borrow the car from his best friend Cal, the college quarterback, but Cal needs the car and so Philippe runs from the college to meet April at the church. She is awestruck that he ran all the way to meet her: “You did that for me,” she says. “Of course,” says Philippe, and she realizes that he really cares for her. They take a walk in the woods and they end the day in a hayloft, making love. He tells her he will take her back to Paris where things are different and they can be married. She is struck by the depth of his love.
Added to this, Philippe has a white southern belle in love with him by the name of Sue Ann, played by Charlotte Ross in what should have been a star making performance. When she find out Philippe is in love with a “negress,” she cuts her hair off and goes mad.
Rick Johnson is perfect for the part of Cal Cate, the college quarterback and Philippe’s best friend on campus. He’s confused by Phillipe’s romance with April, but is a good enough friend to help smooth his way when venturing into the black neighborhood and even loans Philippe his car. On one excursion into the BC, he wants to go to a jazz club. The bouncer tells him to get out. No white boys allowed. Then no less a person than Howlin’ Wolf (played Charles S. Dutton) demands the boy be allowed in or he won’t go on that night. There are many others such interesting incidents that happen along the way, but telling more would spoil the film for you.
Director Eva Sereny, in her only feature film obviously cared about this IR romance and knew a good story when she read it. Everyone, down to Edward Herrmann (most famous for playing FDR), as the worldly English teacher who befriends Philippe, Anthony Herrera as coach Mallard and Joe Hendricks as April’s father are perfect for their parts. The casting was done by either an expert in the field or the result of a happy accident. In any event, this is one of my five favorite films dealing with interracial love and gives a sense of contentment when many other films of this nature end tragically.