Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Power of Early Sidney Poitier
Though he hasn’t made a film since 1997, Sidney Poitier remains one of the most important actors in the history of American cinema. It’s not that every movie he made was great—many of them would be considered exploitative by today’s standards. What Poitier brought to all of his roles was a quiet sense of dignity and pride hitherto unseen by a black performer in America cinema. The Bahamian born actor, in 1963, became the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Lilies of the Field. By 1967, thanks to his roles in To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, he was the #1 box office attraction in America.

The Sidney Poitier Collection, recently released by Warner Brothers Home Video, consists of four of Poitier’s lesser known, earlier works that nonetheless illustrate his commitment to making socially relevant films from his earliest days. The films included are Edge of the City (1956), Something of Value (1957), A Patch of Blue (1965) and A Warm December (1972).

Edge of the City is the earliest of the movies in this collection, and is easily the most powerful of the lot. It’s one of the earliest, if not the first, American film to explore an interracial friendship. Set in the New York dockside railyards, it features Poitier as a labor gang foreman who befriends John Cassavetes, a laborer with a past that makes him beholden to a rival, bigoted gang boss, played by Jack Warden. The film also marks the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, who went on to direct Hud and Norma Rae.

Over a half century after its release, Edge of the City remains relevant, not so much because of its racial undertones, but because of its examination of inequities that still plague some segments of the blue collar workforce. Bullies in the workplace still abound, just as they did when Edge of the City was released. The only difference now is that they’re more readily recognized. This early work featuring Poitier and Cassavetes was among the first to recognize them. Its message is as important now as it was then.

Pity the same can’t be said for 1957’s Something of Value. An early effort by director Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Looking For Mr. Goodbar), it’s a very Hollywood-ish adaptation of Robert C. Ruark’s novel about the Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya after the close of World War Two. Call it a creature of its times, but its messages about racism and warring cultures are painted in the broadest of strokes. It’s all very formulaic, with Rock Hudson as the noble b’wana and Poitier as the black man raised white, but driven by his inner cry for freedom, forced to join the Mau Mau rebellion. It’s a Hollywood B- movie, with Hollywood backlots and soundstages substituted for the publicized native locales. It’s a Rock Hudson vehicle to be sure, but it’s Poitier as the emotionally tortured Kumani, who brings substance to this otherwise lackluster attempt to explore race relations.

Much more subtle and infinitely more satisfying is A Patch of Blue. This 1965 film, directed by Guy Green (Best Cinematography Oscar, 1946 Great Expectations) works on the simple tag “Love is color blind”. In it, Poitier plays easy-going Good Samaritan Gordon Ralfe, who unwittingly becomes involved with a blind girl, Selina D’Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman.) Besides being blind, Selina lives with an emotionally abusive mother of questionable repute (Shelley Winters) and a well-meaning but hopelessly alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford.) Selina’s only refuge is the park, where she meets Gordon, and since she can’t see, she has no idea he’s black. Gordon takes her under his wing, teaching her how to dial a pay phone, cross the street and various things that sighted people take for granted.

A Patch of Blue is a Cinderella story of sorts, but not necessarily one with the requisite “happily ever after”ending. It’s a love story to be sure, but it’s a story that focuses more on social conscience and the greater good than personal desires. Shelley Winters won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, and Elizabeth Hartman won a Golden Globe Award for her efforts.

The final movie in this collection is A Warm December, a 1972 film Poitier directed, as well as starred in. It’s a clumsy effort, playing more like a made for TV travelogue romance than a drama. Poitier plays a widowed American doctor vacationing in London, ostensibly to race dirt bikes in a European competition. Only minutes into the film, however, while strolling around London, he encounters Catherine (Esther Anderson) who enlists his help in eluding a mysterious man who is following her. She promptly slips away, of course, and Poitier, his curiosity piqued, follows her. What follows is a lighthearted romance at this point, a mysterious intrigue at that, a nod to Love Story here and a mention of sickle cell anemia and its disproportionate effects on people of African descent. None of it gels in the end, and its only worth a look to see Poitier’s early attempts at directing, which he would late hone more decisively.

What makes The Sidney Pointier Collection worthwhile is not that it that it contains his better known films—the only one included here that may be largely familiar is A Patch of Blue, and that because it was released at a post-segregationist awakening. It’s certainly not the special features included in the set. They mostly consist of the individual films’ theatrical trailers—only A Patch of Blue offers any special features, and even those are sparse—a commentary feature by director Guy Green, and some stills galleries and notes. All of the movies here are presented in widescreen, and with the exception of A Warm December, they’re all B&W, with excellent reproduction and very good contrast.

Where this collection ultimately succeeds is that it shows that even in his earliest work, Poitier (and the people who worked with him) wanted to present a portrait of America where dignity, love, prestige and worth knew no color. We take those principles for granted today, but in the 1950’s and sixties, those were radical concepts. Sidney Poitier paved the way, at least in film.

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