Take a Giant Step (1959): Philip Leacock’s Coming-of-Age Tale of Black Boy, Starring Johnny Nash, Beah Richards and Estelle Hemsley

Made by the acclaimed Burt Lancaster’s production company (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster), and directed by Philip Leacock, Take a Giant Step is a slice of life realism, a sensitive coming-of-age melodrama about a black teenager.

In addition to the usual problems faced by adolescents at this crucial era, Spencer (Spence) Scott (Johnny Nash), who’s 17, has to face racism in its various manifestations, particularly because he lives in a white middle class neighborhood.

First major crisis occurs when Spence’s history teacher talks about the intellect of black slaves during the American Civil War.  Upset, he raises an objection, but the teacher dismisses the objection.

Angry, he locks himself in the bathroom and smokes a cigar. Upon being caught, he is suspended from school. Meanwhile, his white friends exclude him from their activities because they want to include girls, and none of the girls’ parents approve of socializing with in a black boy.

The tale, adapted from the play by Louis S. Peterson and  Julius Epstein, is extremely well acted by Johnny Nash in the lead, the very young Ruby Dee as the Scott family’s housekeeper, and Beah Richards as Spence’s mother, and Estelle Hemsley as Grandma Martin in a Golden Globe nominated turn.

All of these performers would go on to longer and impressive screen careers.  In fact, Nash later became famous as a singer—he sang the hit song “I Can See Clearly Now.”

United Artists had difficulty distributing the film due to objections over its content, and the release was delayed into the mid of 1960, after the film was re-edited and censored.