Oscar night was always a tradition for my family when I was growing up. Dad would throw some chicken wings in the oven to bake, I would run to the garage to grab the fold-up mini-tables, and we would all congregate in front of the living room television. One of my clearest memories of the Oscars was during the 2002 Ceremony when a wizened African American man walked to the podium to receive an Honorary Award. His speech was slow, calculated, deliberate. He stood and talked for what seemed 10 minutes; his cadence never wavering, his volume steady and controlled.
“He sure is being careful to make sure everyone understands what he’s saying,” my mom opined between mouthfuls of greasy chicken. At the time, I assumed she was referring to his diction. But thinking back, I understand now what she meant. Here was an aging man who had weathered decades and decades of racism and persecution, of struggling against type-casted and stereotyped roles for African Americans. Among his greatest weapons was an immaculate dignity; a poise which dared a hostile world to treat him as an inferior. If the world thought black folks were illiterate, he would speak with the voice of the most tenured and revered professor. If it thought them dirty or unkept, he would tailor himself immaculate. And if they thought them incapable or unworthy, he would outwork and outact the most respected Whites in the business, beating them at their own game with the sheer force of his talent and effort.
That night, Sidney Poitier made damn sure the world understood every word he said.
Regarding Poitier as the first major African-American film actor to deliberately challenge traditional “black roles” would be a dangerous act of historical revision—Paul Robeson labored for decades both in America and abroad for better roles. But within the contentious world of Hollywood historiography, Poitier was a demiurgic figure, both brilliant and terrible in his august demands against a racist industry. For generations of historians and critics, Poitier was the bridge between so-called “Uncle Tom” performers like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, and Butterfly McQueen and “respectable” actors like Morgan Freeman, Cicely Tyson, and Denzel Washington.
Recently, the good folks at Twilight Time have given two of Poitier’s most famous films loving Blu-ray editions. In them we can see the full range of his talents and gain a glimpse of why one man was so instrumental in the ways African-Americans were portrayed onscreen.
The first is Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963), a film which has been somewhat overshadowed by the legacy of Poitier’s performance as the wandering handyman Homer Smith who gets buffaloed into building a chapel for a group of East German nuns in the Arizona desert. Much in the same way that Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) is remembered primarily for its being the first feature length talkie,Stepin Fetchit has been immortalized for netting Poitier the first competitive Oscar for an African American male.
This isn’t entirely fair. As a piece of filmmaking, Lilies of the Field is gorgeous. Cinematographer Ernest Haller milks every drop of visual splendor out of the environment, filling the screen with sweeping desert vistas and sun-bleached buildings. Repeated shots of the nuns walking single-file down deserted highways on their way to Mass are among the most poignant and beautiful moments of his considerable career. The script boils over with organic humor, achingly human characters (Lilia Skala shimmers as “Mother Maria,” the proud leader of the nuns), and one of the most gentle and affecting stories about faith and generosity ever committed to film.
Less can be said for the second film, James Clavell’s To Sir, with Love (1967).
Released four years after Lilies, the film collapses under the weight of its own niceties. I’d use the word “sententious” to characterize it if the Monthly Film Bulletin hadn’t beaten me to it. Aggressively mannered, the film sees Poitier’s Mark Thackeray, a wannabe engineer from British Guyana, forced into a teaching position in London’s East End. Though out of his element, he reforms a classroom of rowdy, uncultured students into civilized young adults, teaching them manners, life lessons, and self-respect. The film’s sole moment of life comes when Thackeray takes the students to a museum. A photo montage set to the film’s eponymous theme song performed by ’60s pop star Lulu (who also plays one of the students) sees them marvel at paintings and sculptures which resemble them. It’s a powerful scene that sees young people abandoned by society seeing themselves in the past. Therein they find a kind of validation they had never dreamed of … perhaps even hope.
Poitier gives two very different performances in both films, no mean feat considering both Homer Smith and Mark Thackeray find themselves in similar situations. Both are outsiders drawn to groups of other outsiders. The Arizona of Lilies of the Field is populated by European refugees, Latino laborers, and Irish priests carrying out nomadic ministries to decentralized populations out the back of their trailers.
The classroom of To Sir, with Love is filled with unwanted children from abusive homes destined for lifetimes of blue collar poverty. But Poitier brings to Homer a kind of over-exaggerated intensity. His body movements are always a little more forceful, a little more broad than you would expect. Thackeray feels like a man who has walled himself off from the world. Whereas Homer never shies away from being loud and assertive (“Old Mother gon’ to feed the slaves?!”), Thackeray punishes himself for losing his temper in front of his students. Perhaps this has to do with how Homer finds himself in a position under authority while Thackeray recognizes that he is the authority.
Interestingly, both films make very little issue over Poitier’s race. There’s a subtle suggestion here or there that Homer might have been cheated of certain opportunities (“I’d always wanted to be an engineer…”) or that an underlying racial ignorance pervades the slums of London (“What, you think he bleeds ink?”). But neither film contains a scene where he gets called a slur; none where they openly persecute him for his blackness.
The final film released by Twilight Time, Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-winning drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) finds itself on the complete opposite side of the spectrum. Here the race issue is brought to the forefront: two upper-class white liberals find their own progressive values challenged when their daughter returns home from a ten-day Hawaiian vacation with a black fiancé in tow.
Despite receiving extensive critical acclaim and astonishing box office returns, the film isn’t one of the best representations of Poitier’s talents. For one, he is barely featured. The film is instead dominated by Spencer Tracy (who would die two weeks after filming his scenes) Katharine Hepburn as the shell-shocked parents. Now that its racial didacticism has lost much of its shock value, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has become most notable for being a metatextual commentary on the onscreen/offscreen romance of Tracy and Hepburn.
Which isn’t to say that Poitier isn’t given room to deliver a great performance. Unlike Lilies of the Field and To Sir, With Love, here Poitier’s character—world-renowned physician John Prentice—spends the majority of the film unsure of how to act, unsure how to properly express himself. He’s kind, yet overly cautious as he tests the waters of his fiancée’s friends and family. But in one tumultuous scene all of his anxieties erupt in a volcanic explosion of anger unlike anything in the other two films. After his father John Prentice Sr. (Roy Glenn) forbids the marriage, Poitier explodes in a tirade, condemning his father, his outdated world view, and his obsessive need to make all of his decisions for him. It’s a startling scene and one of the most effective of his entire career.
Though their racial politics are undeniable, these three films deal with greater themes than timely, social issue-driven ones that might date in ensuing decades. Therein can be found the source of their lasting power. Lilies of the Valley concerns itself with faith, community, and self-sacrifice. Though I have my issues with To Sir, with Love, its message of self-respect and empowerment is just as important today as it was in 1967. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner isn’t just about race, it’s about personal agency and the difficulties parents have with finally letting their children grow up and make their own decisions. Anybody from any race can watch these films and appreciate them. And anybody from any time period or culture can marvel at the wondrous performances of Sidney Poitier, a man who spoke slowly and clearly so that everyone could understand what he was saying.
Lilies of the Field, To Sir, with Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are currently available on limited edition Blu-ray release from Twilight Time.