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Lilies Of The Field

24 Dec

Lilies Of The Field – written and directed by Ralph Nelson. Drama Lite. An itinerant handyman finds himself inveigled to build a chapel in the desert by a sharp-tongued German nun. 94 minutes Black and White. 1963.

★★★★★

Sidney Poitier created in the middle of The United States a lake larger than Superior. It was and is a lake that has its shores in every state in the Union.
What was he?

The first black movie star. It wasn’t like Ella Fitzgerald coming in over the airwaves; you actually had to go see Sidney Poitier. The public was part of it, and was ready for it. We all went to see a black man. It was easy.

But Sidney Poitier was, after all, only an actor.

As such, what did he bring?

Always the same: dignity, innocence, wariness. Also reserve. And, as an actor, he was always game. Also, he was a good-looking man of good figure with a marvelous smile and a distinctive speaking voice.

Whom would I be describing here, if I were not describing Sydney Poitier, but Barrack Obama?

Poitier paved the way and continues to pave the way for Obama, and there is no distinction between them in that way. Obama exists because the Poitier Lake exists. Obama swims in and exists in that Lake.

They have another point in common which accounts for their preeminence, their success, their possibility – and that is that both were born on far offshore islands, and neither of them were of American origin. Poitier is from Jamaica and returned to it as his home base. Obama’s father was from Kenya; neither was reared in the black male diminution of the mainland: Obama lived a significant portion of his childhood in Southeast Asia. Both men appeared to be U.S. citizens, not from charlatanism but by common public error, but they were not. Poitier is a naturalized citizen; Obama is first-generation. They are Americans once remove. Their appearance is African-American, but the truth is they are African-sports, Maverick-Americans. They are travellers. Their true home is not America but in themselves alone. America is a congeries of fifty-two nation-states. To have a home in the joy and jingoism of none of them is for both of them, naturally, to make a home of all of them. Distance is their intimacy.

Poitier made the Lake, Obama deepens its color.

And what is that color?

That color is the undeniable truth that this country is unthinkable without African American people.

Poitier gave gills to every black actor after him. Few resembled him, for Poitier was a leading actor always of limited but commanding presence. But his existence permitted the actors who followed him to play characters who were not innocent, reserved, dignified, wary, game, or even leading-man-good-looking. Wesley Snipes, Danny Glover, Matthew Perry got their license to act because the Poitier Lake already existed for them.

~ ~ ~

Lilies Of The Field is essentially a TV play of the kind that was done in the ‘60s live, and as such it has its satisfactions. To describe its predicament of a roving handyman asked to stand still and build a church is to say enough about it. It’s filmed by the great Ernest Haller. Poitier is good in it, although he overplays the first scene in the greasy-spoon. However, Poitier never does blackface, as Sammy Davis Junior sometimes lost himself in doing. Poitier’s another thing entirely, a black actor who never heard of blackface. He won the Oscar for it. It’s a good family film, worth a visit, if only to witness how astutely it ends.

 
 
 
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