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Cry, The Beloved Country – Sidney Poitier version

27 Oct

Cry, The Beloved Country – Sidney Poitier version – Directed by Zoltan Korda. Tragedy. An old reverend from the South Africa back country journeys to Johannesburg for the first time to find his son and sister and there he meets his destiny. 107 minutes Black and White 1951.

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Sydney Poitier got this part quite by accident through the casual recommendation of Joe Mankiewicz and, without a reading, was whisked off to Africa with Canada Lee to make a movie of the great and world famous novel by Alan Paton. The only way they could be admitted to South Africa was not as actors, which was unthinkable then, but as indentured servants. When he was done he went to The Bahamas where he was from, saw his parents whom he had not written to in eight years, gave them the $3,000 he had earned, and went back to Harlem washing dishes, which is what he had been doing before he was cast. He was 23. He soon had a child and then another. But he turned down acting jobs. He turned them down if they did not fadge with the standards of dignity his parents had raised him with. And this accounts for Sidney Poitier’s career and art. For here he stands before us in a major role, exactly as he would for the rest of his life. His back his straight. His voice always has that slight strain of a diction not native to him. And his eye is always at once angry and searching. It’s a very limited technique, and it is one devoid of any sense of humor. But he has a good carriage, he is handsome, he is reserved. He is not as good in the role as the actor, Vusi Kunene, who played it years later in the 1995 Color version with Richard Harris and James Earle Jones, for there is a righteous confinement in Poitier that wants breadth. What he unwittingly did was make of himself a public statue, but one that moved, and one that showed, unmistakably, the life-honor of a man to his countrymen and to his race. He happened to be Black. You Must Not Mistreat This Person was the consequent message. It was not what he set out to do, but rather it was the result of a distant ethical decision of being about his life. Playing characters that were mistreated, therefore, became Poitier’s dramatic specialty. Here he is outspoken and wrong-headed as the psychopomp guiding through the hell of Johannesburg Canada Lee as the Umfundisi, the reverend, who comes there to find his family and finds disaster. The story is the most moving I have ever read.  And for me, it is less the priest that is moving than the white planter, here very well played by Charles Carson, for this is the pivotal role, the role whose turning turns the entire story and turns us as it does so. It is Jarvis’s ignorance that is dispelled by the murder. His is the education, and the actions arising from his education educate us all. Cry, The Beloved Country is the great story of the recognition of our common humanity. This version is certainly not as fine as the 1995 version. Its story is more ritualized than realized. The acting is fine. Canada Lee died shortly after making it, and he does not have the breadth of James Earle Jones, to be sure; his brow is furrowed in a constriction of formal fear; but he is excellent in bringing us the old man’s ignorance and its comeuppance.  If you want to see an impeccable performance by a character lead, Joyce Carey as Jarvis’ wife gives one. The film is beyond recommendation because the material is. It is not simply a story; it is a scripture. Which means that contact with it affords one an experience of the divine.

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