No actor should be made into a marble statue. As the leading black star during the upheaval-heavy 1960s, Sidney Poitier couldn’t just act on screen, he was expected to represent. In films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night there’s the feeling that Poitier senses the eyes of an entire race and the heft of decades of ethnic stereotypes on him, moving as if (to borrow J. Hoberman’s description of Gus Van Sant’s cautious approach in Milk) balancing a Ming vase on his head. Handsome, commanding, and with great reserves of fire, he gradually became a monolithically dignified emblem of timid Hollywood liberalism. A role like the fugitive musician in Luis Buñuel’s little-seen masterpiece The Young One, where the characters’ impurities are inseparable from their humanity, would scarcely be considered by Poitier, even though its unsettling portrait of racial dynamics shames anything in The Defiant Ones. Salutary and undeniably important for future generations both inside and outside movie theaters, his insistence on role-model parts sapped his vitality and made his respectability increasingly sexless and lifeless. As a result, Poitier has been an institution for so long that many a younger viewer might forget what a piercing performer he was.
Edge of the City, the earliest film in this Sidney Poitier Collection, comes as a startling reminder of the younger, rawer Poitier. The actor is remarkably fluid in this often forceful but ultimately pat 1957 drama, an adaptation of a TV play that also marked the debut of Martin Ritt, directing his first feature after being blacklisted for his politics. The story is the earliest version of a narrative template Poitier would return to often, the socially conscious interracial buddy movie, though the focus is less on the gulf between blacks and whites than on the contrast between despair and growth. A young army deserter (John Cassavetes), lost and distrustful, tentatively comes to terms with his past and finds his place in society through his friendship with an easygoing dockworker (Poitier). Their bond progresses movingly, but, with a bigoted clod (Jack Warden) waiting in the wings, it’s just a matter of time for their integrated bond to come to a brutal end. Excellent as Poitier is, his character exists first and foremost to nurse his white friend’s wounds and dutifully go from mentor to martyr when tragedy strikes, a reductive dramatic ploy that the film’s violent, faux-Kazan conclusion merely exacerbates.
Something of Value, made that same year by another issue-driven filmmaker, employs the ebony-and-ivory arc for a portrait of volatile tensions in British-occupied Kenya. Richard Brooks, who directed Poitier’s star-making turn in The Blackboard Jungle, casts him here as a different kind of rebellious youth, a Kenyan man whose growing disgust for colonial injustices steers him toward the Mau Mau insurgents and away from his childhood friend, a privileged European (Rock Hudson) who joins the defense forces. Bookish worthiness was Brooks’s stock in trade, and the picture, an adaptation of Robert Ruark’s bestseller, makes for an erratic marriage of suspense and message. Even if it spells it out in big, blocky letters, however, the film compels an understanding for the feeling of oppression that triggers horrific violence from both sides of the conflict, and there are moments that cut deeper now than when the film was first released (“Since when do we use torture,” the disgusted Hudson asks after witnessing the treatment of a Mau Mau prisoner). Thankfully freed from saintliness, Poitier expresses his character’s simultaneous radicalization and disillusionment with arresting flashes of buried anger that burn right through the film’s tasteful veneer of white guilt.
One of the least explored aspects of Poitier’s persona is his romantic side, which, as glimpsed in his scenes with Diahann Carroll in Paris Blues, brimmed with ardor and playfulness. It’s a shame, then, that the set’s two romantic entries, A Patch of Blue and A Warm December, are such tepid affairs. The former, a 1965 tear-squeezer that tritely lumps blank eyes and black skin under the same “outsider” umbrella, finds Poitier chastely rescuing a sightless waif (Elizabeth Hartman) from her racist mom (Shelley Winters in full virago mode). The story suggests Dickens—director Guy Green was a cinematographer in David Lean’s Oliver Twist—but the mild, maudlin “daring” is pure Stanley Kramer. Similarly, Poitier is more healer than lover in 1973’s A Warm December, which he directed with none of the rowdy energy he would later bring to Uptown Saturday Night. The London-set plot begins like an espionage thriller, as Poitier’s vacationing doctor becomes involved with an African diplomat’s lovely, mysterious daughter (Esther Anderson); it’s only after many, many montages of the couple mooning about the city that the film’s true nature as a clunky weepie emerges, with the heroine stricken with what Love Story scoffers have since dubbed the Ali McGraw Disease. Poitier’s undimmed class has always been about equality between races, so it’s perversely fitting that the film demonstrates how, when it comes to making bad art, racial barriers really are insignificant.
The three earlier, black-and-white films receive solid, consistent transfers (Something of Value in particular features dynamic visual contrasts), though colors in A Warm December are often fuzzy. Other than highlighting Miklos Rozsa's use of African chants in Something of Value, the sound is proficient but unremarkable.
A Patch of Blue offers an uneven but affable commentary by director Guy Green, and also the rather skimpy "Sidney Poitier: A Legacy" essay. A trailer apiece is all the other films get.
A patchy but worthy set for a classy star who deserved more exciting roles.