Sidney Poitier died aged 94 on January 6th and I’d like to acknowledge his considerable contribution to cinema over a career lasting 50 years. I think, as a young filmgoer in the 1950s and 1960s especially, I didn’t really appreciate his work and I’ve been interested to read some of the obituaries and accounts of his career. There are only two posts on Poitier on this blog at the moment, even though I saw several more of his films many years ago. The reason for my under-appreciation of his work is probably focused on the 1960s in particular and the way in which his screen persona was understood by a significant part of the audience, i.e. that he seemed to be cast as a particular African American ‘type’ in the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘good Negro’ (as the language had it then) or the ‘magic Negro’ and, most damning by some of his detractors, a ‘Tom’ figure. His contemporary Harry Belafonte was cast as a different type and one that was perhaps more palatable for the audiences I identified with. I thought I’d test out some ideas about Poitier’s career by focusing first on his début featured role in the 1950 film No Way Out.
No Way Out is what I think of as a social problem picture. These were produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s by several studios and the American films tended to be ‘harder’ than their equivalents in the UK. I note that American writers tend to refer to films like No Way Out as films noirs but I think of them more like crime melodramas. Race was one of the issues that formed the focus for some of the Hollywood films and in this film Poitier plays a newly-qualified doctor whose first job in the hospital where he finished his training finds him on the ‘prison ward’ and required to attend to two men who have been shot in the legs by police officers during an attempted robbery at a petrol station. Poitier (as Dr. Brooks) discovers that they are two brothers. One is a loudmouth racist who has to be restrained. He is lively and angry but his brother is clearly very ill. It looks as if the shooting has exacerbated an underlying condition and Brooks attempts an unusual but appropriate procedure to alleviate the condition. He is unsuccessful and the man dies. The brother who is watching screams “Murderer!”. The hospital management decides to do nothing, satisfied that Brooks had followed an appropriate form of treatment, but Brooks himself wants an autopsy to show that he was justified (even though it might show his diagnosis was wrong). To do that he needs the permission of the next of kin. The racist brother is unlikely to comply. But there are other close relatives . . .
Poitier was only 22 when he made this, his first credited feature film. He was only fourth-billed but he is in many ways the central character. Top billing went to Richard Widmark who took the role of the racist brother reluctantly. Widmark himself was a late entrant to Hollywood features after an early and successful stage career. In his first role for 20th Century Fox as the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947) he had received a nomination for an Academy Award as ‘Best Supporting Actor’ (and won a Golden Globe). But he was becoming wary of other similar roles and the story goes that during the shoot of No Way Out he frequently apologised to Poitier for his terrifying performance as the racist thug, Ray Biddle. “It’s the role, it isn’t me!” he told Poitier. But Widmark would have realised that this would be a superior film, written (with Lesser Samuels) and directed by Joe Mankiewicz in the same year as All About Eve. The other two leading players are Stephen McNally and Linda Darnell. McNally plays Poitier’s boss Dr. Wharton and Darnell is the dead man’s ex-wife. This was an ‘A’ production for Fox, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with Milton Krasner as cinematographer and Alfred Newman in charge of music. What is significant about the film is that Poitier is provided with a proper family background with Ruby Dee as his sister Connie and Ossie Davis as his brother Jack. Both these actors would go on to be major African American actors with long careers. Poitier’s wife is played by Mildred Joanne Smith who had a serious accident a couple of years later which hampered her career prospects. She was billed alongside Poitier whereas Dee and Davis were uncredited. The family provides an element of melodrama, emphasising the relatively poor background from which Dr. Brooks has worked hard to qualify as a doctor. It also provides a ‘way in’ to the central dramatic incident of the film, a major clash between the denizens of ‘Beaver Canal’, the run-down home district of the Biddle brothers, and the black youth of the city as we follow Jack in setting up an ambush.
I think this is a very interesting film and I enjoyed it very much. I don’t want to spoil your narrative pleasure if you are able to find it on streamers so I’m not going to outline the plot in detail. All I’ll say is that it is unusual to have an organised black ‘resistance’ in a mainstream Hollywood film, but the fight between the two groups is not the climax of the action. That will involve the four central characters. Dr. Brooks is the target for Ray Biddle, working with his older brother George (Harry Bellaver) who is (again in the language of the period) ‘deaf and dumb’. In what may be a subtle commentary on the treatment of people with ‘disabilities’, the script suggests that the police and hospital assume that George does not understand everything that happens. But he lipreads very well and is very capable of helping Ray escape from custody and track down Brooks. Meanwhile Edie, the ex-wife, is used by Ray to help locate Brooks. In terms of the racism discourse, the key character in the narrative is Dr. Wharton.
Wharton represents another ‘type’ – the white liberal who believes that he has found the rational position inside a racist society. He attempts to deal with the situation that Dr. Brooks finds himself in by asserting that he supports Brooks as a ‘good doctor’, not because he is a ‘Negro doctor’ in a difficult position. He thus finds himself between Brooks, who understands his own position quite clearly, and the head of the hospital who is worried by the newspaper report of the incident. In order to better understand the arguments about Poitier’s acting persona I acquired a copy of The Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation by Sharon Willis (University of Minnesota Press 2015). Unfortunately Ms Willis does not, as far as I can see at the moment, discuss No Way Out. Instead she focuses on what she sees as Poitier the ‘teacher’ whether in teacher roles such as To Sir With Love (US-UK 1967), as a student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) or an escaped convicted man in The Defiant Ones (US 1958). In the first of these Poitier as a Caribbean migrant teaches white London kids. In the second he challenges Glenn Ford as his white teacher and in the third he tries to show Tony Curtis how to survive on the run. Different roles but in each he teaches a white character and by extension a white audience. The outcome of this is not, however, to instigate an exchange of ideas and understanding but more to show that a black man can be useful/helpful etc. – and therefore not threatening. Willis extends this analysis to include Poitier’s role in In the Heat of the Night (1967). I’ve just watched that so some analysis will follow.
I was really impressed with this film, especially the way that Joe Mankiewicz included so many other black characters alongside Poitier. He isn’t a lone figure and the other black characters don’t necessarily agree with him. It’s interesting, however, that when actors like Amanda Randolph appear in stills from the film, they are still not credited. Watch this trailer on YouTube and you should find your way to a decent copy of the film. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I was.