2/26/2009

DVD Review: The Sidney Poitier Collection (Edge of the City; A Patch of Blue; Something of Value; A Warm December) -- 4 Discs

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An Introduction

"Yes, life is tough. It offers no guarantee that one road will lead to another, no promise that we won't get lost. And when we do, as surely we will from time to time, be advised that we'll stand alone.

"...When we have no place to run, no place to hide, and our hearts scream in anguish for rescue, relief, salvation, we are left with only instinct for guidance and trial and error for judgment.

"But the tools for meeting life head-on, as I see it, are acquired knowledge, belief, and hope. No one knows all there is to know.... The task is to learn as much as you can about as much as you can; the great disease of mankind is ignorance."




It seems as though the history of African-American cinema can be broken down into two categories-- Before and After Sidney Poitier.

Prior to Poitier's big breakthrough portraying a doctor no less treating the bigoted racist Richard Widmark in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film No Way Out-- when black actors appeared onscreen, they were most often given degrading one-dimensional roles. These included parts as servants, chauffeurs, waiters, or maids who cracked a joke here, dropped a "yes'm" there as they carried a tray, ironed laundry or held a door, and were sometimes forced to tap-dance or act ridiculously for the camera to cater to a white director's whims as if they were simply "objects" rather than human beings.



While there were a couple of notable exceptions of course as African-Americans were actually producing some of their own films (in a sadly unexplored topic) and some actors did receive recognition including Gone With the Wind's Oscar winning Hattie McDaniel (again as a "Mammy") yet they were few and far between. However, when the handsome, soft-spoken Poitier arrived, he signaled that a change was coming to American cinema and it's all the more inspiring since it occurred at the very height of the racial attacks, struggle to fight against segregation during the era of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.



Although he never used a soapbox or staged a march, Poitier's revolution was in defying the odds in a series of remarkable performances in films that suddenly dared us to confront our own prejudices and attitudes as a nation. Despite this, nonetheless, he was critiqued by some for not being revolutionary enough as Turner Classic Movies cites that, "Poitier's ascension to stardom in the mid-1950s was no accident... in this integrationist age Poitier was the model integrationist hero. In all his films he was educated and intelligent... His characters were tame, never did they act impulsively, nor were they threats to the system ... And finally they were non-funky, almost sexless and sterile."

And honestly, even Poitier himself agreed as he was quoted by Aram Goudsouzian in the biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon that he "complained about his screen sexuality," in the late '60s when he noted "Either there were no women, or there was a woman but she was blind, or the relationship was of a nature that satisfied the taboos. I was at my wits end when I finished A Patch of Blue" (241).



Yet, while there are definitely double standards throughout those films, they're still extraordinary in that they helped predict what was to come for African-American cinema. In this brand new set-- The Sidney Poitier Collection, which released in late January from Warner Brothers Studios-- WB serves up a four film, slim cased packaging of Poitier's work (nicely maintaining the studio's devotion to use classic poster art and boast original trailers) including my own personal favorite A Patch of Blue and three other films that are making their DVD and/or Home Video debut according to the press release.

Yes, granted, you'll want to rush out and track down his other great turns in films like The Defiant Ones, To Sir With Love, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Raisin in the Sun, No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, Sneakers, In The Heat of the Night, and many, many more, but this is still a great overview of his range and evolution from actor in 1957 to actor/producer/director (A Warm December) in 1973.



Edge of the City
(1957)



"Logic and reason grow out of the experience of interacting with the world, with daily life, out of the instinct for the recognition of logic and reason in oneself, and out of the feeling that logic and reason need to and should be applied in one's best interest. In the part of the world where I came from, most people without an education didn't know what the word logic meant. Reason is another such word...

"Nonetheless, survival requires the use of logic and reason."


An underrated work that boasts the filmmaking debut of former blacklisted television director Martin Ritt-- who would go on to helm The Long Hot Summer, Hud, Norma Rae, Murphy's Romance, The Great White Hope, Sounder, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Stanley and Iris, Hombre and many others-- Edge of the City further solidified the early Poitier paradigm in that it's essentially a buddy film with the black Poitier and a white costar as the two prove that friendship can defy race.



This time around instead of Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, or Rock Hudson, he worked with the incredibly talented John Cassavetes whom Peter Bogdanovich noted in in Who The Hell's In It would become one of Poitier's closest friends throughout his life (451) as Cassavettes became an independent filmmaker in his own right (Shadows, Faces).



He chose City to follow up his Oscar nominated turn in The Defiant Ones and by the time of its release, Poitier was revered by critics including Variety's acknowledgment that Edge of the City was "a milestone in the history of the screen in its presentation of an American Negro," (Goudsouzian, 119).

Actually dubbed the "first American film mainly concerned with an interracial friendship," by David Shipman in The Story of Cinema (as quoted by Warner Brothers)-- this gritty film centering on dockworkers exploited by their brutal boss seems additionally to be-- at least in my estimation-- the blacklisted Ritt's response film to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (which was an allegorical work defending his decision to name names before the House of the Un-American Activities Committee hearings by Joseph McCarthy).



Again centering on the corruption on the New York docks with a final showdown greatly reminiscent of Brando's in Kazan's film-- Ritt's Edge of the City is another 1950s social consciousness work but one that benefits mostly because instead of preaching as some of the films of the era did-- it put characters first.

When the troubled newcomer Axel North (Cassavetes) arrives on the dock run by crooked Charlie Malik (Jack Warden), he's offered work if you give him a portion of your salary, which he holds over Axel's head by upping the take when he realizes the young man is on the run from something. Insecure, nervous, and shy-- Axel is taken under the wing of Poitier's strong Tommy "T.T." Tyler-- possibly sensing a kinship as a fellow outsider since he's the only black worker in the lot.

Palling around with Axel as he begins to confess what's led him to New York, T.T. helps steer him towards a more promising future by introducing him to a young woman, inviting him over to his family's home and trying to make the man realize that it's not a crime to have pride and want to fight the injustice of Malik.

While-- as often the case in '50s message movies-- it ends tragically, it's an arresting work of integrity and morality that celebrates Poitier's tenants of logic and reason and one that was championed by "representatives from the NAACP, Urban League, American Jewish Committee, and Interfaith Council" for its "message of racial brotherhood," (Goudsouzian, 119).

And quickly Poitier's on-screen characterization seemed to blur the edges of the celluloid frame and make it into the presses as the media began to argue that T.T. and Poitier were one in the same as Dorothy Marsters penned in New York Daily News that "Sidney only had to be himself... a philosopher who has arrived at an excellent adjustment to the world," (Goudsouzian, 122).

While of course, being typecast as a "saint" had its advantages as Poitier kept being offered roles and could afford-- as always-- to be quite choosy in the type of work he took on never wanting to play something subservient or detrimental to the fragile cinematic image of the African American as it was beginning to change after decades of prejudice-- the double-edged sword was that he was never going to get the girl and would specialize in being the type of "minister," "teacher," and "philosopher" that we still see black actors routinely offered today in helping show whites the way from Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost to Don Cheadle in The Family Man.



Yet, Poitier handled these ups and downs beautifully and poured a great deal of effort into a film he hoped would be more of a romance and less of yet another "racially" aware film-- 1965's A Patch of Blue which has been one of my personal favorite Poitier works for years.


A Patch of Blue
(1965)



"We all have a capacity for love, for kindness, for passion. We also have a capacity for the opposite, but love is infinitely more effective in the world than hate, although they exist as equal opposites. So I reject hate and choose to explore the nature of love, both emotionally and philosophically."

Based on Elizabeth Kata's novel Be Ready with Bells and Drums-- A Patch of Blue foreshadowed-- (at least to an extent before ultimately racial "sensitivity" trumped it), the groundbreaking interracial romance film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that, much like In the Heat of the Night, is nearly synonymous with Poitier's name.

Thus, it's just a pity that in the actor's extraordinary career and aside from the Best Supporting Actress Oscar given to Shelley Winters and newcomer Elizabeth Hartman's receipt of the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award associated with the film-- very few people have seen it or discuss it as much as his other work.

A subtle love story and one that Poitier had wished wouldn't have been quite as subtle when he initially expressed interest-- A Patch of Blue is a work that defies not only racial stereotypes but disabled ones as well as the film finds the middle class good-natured Gordon Ralfe (Poitier) meeting Selina (Hartman) as the young woman sits stringing beads for money in the park.

Quickly becoming friends-- although once again we have Sidney as the savior as we learn about the girl's tragic existence living with a promiscuous mother and drunken grandfather where she's kept ignorant, out of school, and treated like a slave-- he helps instill in Selina a sense of independence and confidence as he teaches her how to cross a street, find a restroom, and dial a telephone.

Spending increasing amounts of time meeting up with the girl who's deposited nearly daily in the park, soon their friendship moves rather inevitably into the beginning of an attraction which-- while especially notable from Selina's point of view-- is one that Poitier's Gordon tries to deny from his far more militant and outspoken brother and prejudiced strangers who give him the evil eye as he helps Selina along a sidewalk.

And despite the fact that Selina envisions Gordon to be her knight in shining armor, she has no idea that her particular knight is black and after sharing a tale about her bigoted mother's separation of Selina from her only other friend in the world-- a young black girl with whom she played as a girl-- Gordon is understandably hesitant to reveal his race.

While the tag-line has a few different meanings with its promise that "love is color-blind," given not only the racial issue but Selina's blindness as well-- aside from one chaste kiss that does lead to a more romantic kiss in his kitchen before Gordon pulls himself away (which was cut in some of the theatrical prints sent to theatres but included in the disc) which proved to be "Hollywood's first interracial kiss," nonetheless the entire scene as Goudsouzian notes is "frought with ambiguity," (241).

For, despite his mutual attraction and the fact that for the first time in Poitier's career "his isolated position or marital status precluded romance, his character has sexual opportunities in A Patch of Blue," but he has to "personally reinforce racial taboos by exhibiting Victorian restraint," which ultimately "refined Poitier's neuterdom," (241). And the film-- which did surprisingly well even in Southern states-- was divided in its critical reception.

Cruelly, some likened him to a "one man stereotype" or "caricature of the Negro as a Madison Avenue sort of Christian saint" that's essentially "tiresome and, at bottom nearly as patronizing as the cretinous figure that Stepin Fetchit used to play," in a work that some felt "simultaneously insult[ed] the Negroes and the blind," which found them drawing comparisons to Uncle Tom's Cabin (241-242).

However, on the flip-side, it drew raves and broke barriers in others including myself who (despite regretting the racial censorship) see it as overwhelmingly a complicated film that avoids preaching, shortcuts, easy answers, and condescension but creating two fully realized people of the time period. Additionally, it boasts a remarkable tour de force by its young newcomer that helped raise awareness of double-standards for disabled individuals as well and contains one of Poitier's most underrated portrayals of his career.

Possibly damned because it had followed too many of his Lilies of the Field-esque works so that critics judged Poitier the man (again mistaking him for his characters as though he and each character were one in the same a la Woody Allen the character and Woody Allen the person) rather than viewing it as a singular work worthy of a second look at its remarkable quality.

A film that MGM and Poitier were especially passionate about as MGM producer Pandro Berman said, "if I don't have Sidney Poitier... I don't want to make this picture," and Poitier who wanted to make a work that instead of leaning "very heavily on the nature of race," should've focused on the relationship which he told executives embodied "the kernel and the seed and it's from there you can build an extraordinarily touching, warm, humorous, tender, human story" (239).

Devoting himself to trying to retool the racial politics of the script, A Patch of Blue as Goudsouzian stated was yet another milestone in African-American cinema in that it gave Poitier the chance to sculpt "a film's politics to a degree unprecedented in his fifteen-year career" (240).


Something of Value
(1957)



"The good wars are the ones we fight in the name of children, in the name of the poor, in the name of those oppressed by overwhelming odds or forces beyond their control... We fight good wars when we refuse to allow injustice to be done to others. We fight good wars when we oppose hate, bigotry and ignorance.

"...Racial, religious, and sexual bigotry must be your enemies. Go for the jugular when you encounter the principal adversary: ignorance."

While Poitier would go on to shape the politics of Patch of Blue a number of years following this film which finds him working once again with his Blackboard Jungle director Richard Brooks-- when it comes to Something of Value, the politics and moral of the story are transparent from its opening prologue throughout the entire work.

Still shockingly violent for its time period, the film made an uneasy move for this reviewer from days of studying Poitier as the classy sophisticate to suddenly a Kenyan native in this adaptation of Robert Ruark's fictitious spin on the Mau Mau uprising against the barbaric and tyrannical European settlers.

And on the surface, much like Edge of the City, Paris Blues and countless others-- it gives Poitier a "white buddy." In Value, it's Rock Hudson as a friend he grew up alongside playing together as boys but one he must now serve as his master when they become adults and it opens with a pointedly demeaning portrayal of the dominant settlers abusing the Kenyan natives including Poitier.

While Brooks specialized in gritty realism based features such as his masterpiece In Cold Blood based on the book by Truman Capote-- Something of Value to me seemed a bit overly staged and far too predictable with characters who seemed as though they were cardboard cut-outs who must stop every so often to give a speech.



And although, the message delivered in the prologue in a quote from Winston Churchill that rightfully argues that "the problems of East Africa are the problems of the world," and this seems especially timely today and there's some terrific opportunities for all involved to shine (despite Hudson's under-written role that moves uneasily back and forth as he understands both sides of the conflict), overall, it's a work that doesn't stand out among Poitier's best and in the collection sticks out as much as the awkward final offering.


A Warm December
(1973)



"Heroes and role models are important, especially because when you think of them they have the ability to buoy your spirits and ignite your energies to move you onward."


By the 1970s, Sidney Poitier had become a hero in his own right-- moving from actor to director. In a film that opens like a spy movie and then evolves into a romance, Sidney Poitier's second outing as a director-- A Warm December-- marks the first release from Poitier's independent First Artists Production Company he formed alongside Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and Steve McQueen.

As widowed doctor Matt Younger who travels to London with his young daughter for a much needed break and a chance to do some dirt-biking (yeah, that doesn't quite seem to fit to me either), Poitier finally gets the chance to make an unabashed romance in the vein of the late '60s and early '70s tearjerker date movies like Love Story and countless others.



Struck by the beauty of Catherine (Esther Anderson)-- a stranger being followed by suspicious looking men on the streets of London-- Younger gets involved both by an instant attraction as well as to fulfill his overwhelming curiosity of just whom the tall, waif-like contemporary beauty could be.

A ceremonious flop-- Poitier switches gears uneasily from what he described as "an old-fashioned love story" (Goudsouzian, 342) for African-American audiences as the two leads develop an instant sexual attraction that sizzles onscreen to instead a supreme downer and medical awareness movie.

Additionally, it's one that's filled with uneven plot segues about the problems in Africa juxtaposed with African cultural celebrations in England that seem to call far too attention to themselves thereby interrupting the film's plot for a "political aside" here and there.

And while you can applaud Poitier's film as an intelligent diversion to the wave of blaxploitation cinema that emerged in the '70s, overall A Warm December comes off as pretentious and stoic in its aspiration to try to tell essentially four different stories at once.

Despite this lackluster finale, cinema will always owe a great debt to Sidney Poitier and-- much like he shares in his letters to his great-granddaughter which I've quoted throughout, luckily generations to come will be able to experience that heroism firsthand left behind with an incredible body of work.