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Sidney Poitier's roles as a historical marker

A new boxed set of four of his films shows the evolution of black characters in American cinema.

January 25, 2009|Dennis Lim

Reviewing one of Sidney Poitier's films in the late '60s, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted that the actor "does not make movies, he makes milestones." Canby's point, which was not entirely a compliment, holds even truer today. In his prime, Poitier (who turns 82 next month) was a reliably deft and sensitive actor, but as Hollywood's first major black star, he found himself saddled with the symbolic role of integrationist hero and stuck in a series of well-intentioned message movies that were doomed to become dated almost instantly.

In time for Black History Month, Warner Home Video this week releases the Sidney Poitier Collection, a set of four films, three of which are making their DVD debut. Two are from the first chapter of his career ("Edge of the City" and "Something of Value," both 1957), one comes from his high-water decade of the 1960s, "A Patch of Blue," and another, "A Warm December," is a directorial effort from the 1970s.

The two '50s movies have their moments; the other two are barely mediocre. But all are, in a sense, milestones -- historical markers in the evolution of black characters in American cinema.

"Edge of the City" and "Something of Value" are variations on an early Poitier specialty, the black-white buddy movie, the most vivid example of which is perhaps Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones" (1958), with Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts shackled to each other.

"Edge," which has never been available on home video, is the first movie directed by Martin Ritt, a leftist who began his career in theater and moved into television, only to find himself on the Hollywood blacklist in the early '50s. (Ritt went on to direct such socially conscious films as 1972's "Sounder" and 1979's "Norma Rae.")

Adapted by Robert Alan Aurthur from his own television play (which also starred Poitier), "Edge of the City" reprises the dockyard melodramatics of "On the Waterfront" but with a racial twist. Poitier and John Cassavetes play longshoremen, and in what was for the time a progressive role reversal, the black man is a wise mentor figure while the white man is a tormented screw-up.

For its first half, the film is an optimistic and even touching portrayal of an interracial friendship that does not make a huge deal out of race. But this utopian vision can last only so long, as the presence of Jack Warden's menacing foreman makes clear.

A violent outburst of racism leads predictably to the Poitier character's martyrdom. (Two years after "Edge of the City," Cassavetes directed his groundbreaking first feature, "Shadows," an evocative portrait of a racially mixed New York bohemia.)

Poitier's other 1957 pairing was somewhat odder: in "Something of Value," he and Rock Hudson play boyhood pals in Kenya who end up fighting against each other once the Mau Mau insurgency against British colonial rule breaks out. Directed by Richard Brooks (who had worked with Poitier in 1955's "Blackboard Jungle") and based on a bestselling novel by Robert Ruark, the film doesn't transcend its pat, schematic set-up, but it also doesn't flinch from the brutality of the conflict, which it tries to explore from both sides.

By the time Poitier starred in "A Patch of Blue" (1965), he had won his Oscar (for 1963's "Lilies of the Field") and his screen persona was often that of a kindly savior. In this mawkish drama, directed by Guy Green, Poitier's character rescues a blind white girl (Elizabeth Hartman), who has been virtually enslaved by her bigoted, slatternly mother (Shelley Winters) and who for most of the film has no clue that her new friend is black. The movie entertains hints of a romance -- there's one brief kiss -- and duly snuffs them out.

Poitier's career peaked with the late-'60s touchstones "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "In the Heat of the Night." In the '70s, with black cinema newly synonymous with the rude energy of blaxploitation, Poitier's noble heroes started to cede the screen to other black archetypes (and stereotypes).

Entering his 40s, he took up directing, often starring in his movies as well. "A Warm December" (1973) is far from his finest hour. He plays a widowed doctor in London who falls for the beautiful, enigmatic niece of an African diplomat. The intrigue soon evaporates as the film reveals itself as a terminal-illness weepie, modeled on the manipulations of the 1970 hit "Love Story."

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