Tagged: Sidney Poitier

GFF18 #6: The Defiant Ones (US 1958)

For the last few years, Glasgow Film Festival has offered free morning shows of mainly classical Hollywood films on each morning of the festival. These screenings in GFT1 are, not surprisingly, very popular, especially with older people who might not otherwise visit the festival. The films are selected for a specific thematic programme – this year ‘Rebel Heroes’. Each is given an introduction by Alan Hunter which is warmly received – Glasgow festival audiences are very generous in my experience.

The Defiant Ones is a film I’ve been trying to see for some time, so I greatly appreciated the opportunity offered by a GFF screening. Stanley Kramer productions are out of fashion these days and therefore rarely revived. Kramer was a producer and director who specialised in ‘social issues’ or ‘message films’ as they were often called. The messages were clear and the narratives were conventional in structure and used stars in the same way as mainstream Hollywood. This meant that the films won critical Oscars and attracted large audiences – but not necessarily the interest of cinephiles. The Defiant Ones was certainly one of the most impactful of Kramer’s films – he produced and directed from a script by Nedrick Young and Howard Jacob Smith. The script won an Oscar and a second went to cinematographer Sam Leavitt. There were another seven Oscar nominations for the film so it clearly drew mainstream critical acclaim.

Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) in the first part of the film is often supporting John ‘Joker’ Jackson who has a sore caused by the shackles

The Defiant Ones stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two prisoners who escape in a road accident during transportation somewhere in the American south. It was not the practice to chain together black and white prisoners and the script passed this off as the warden’s joke. This was perceived as a script weakness by some critics but of course it was essential to build the narrative around two men shackled together who as one of the lawmen hunting for them remarks “will probably kill each other before we find them”. Theodore Bikel is solid as the lawyer=turned-sheriff who tries to constrain the police and volunteer deputies on the hunt. The script carefully makes him the elected official who is thoughtful about his role. A different character who explores a similarly difficult position is a small town community leader played by Lon Chaney Jr – himself an ex-prisoner – who helps the escapees.

Theodore Bikel as the sheriff who must constrain the posse who set out to catch the escapees

Lon Chaney Jr. in a role which is both ‘functional’ and ‘thematic’

Alan Hunter’s introduction mainly told us what is common knowledge on Wikipedia. Kramer had wanted to use Poitier for some time and he was undoubtedly a leading actor by 1958, though none of the films he had made were particularly big box office, many were well-received. However, he was also a suave figure and perhaps strange casting as a jailbird. The same might be said about the other potential African-American film actors of the time, e.g. Harry Belafonte or Brock Peters. Kramer wanted a star, even if an unknown might have been more intriguing. This is not to criticise Poitier who is very good, but simply to underline Kramer’s approach. Curtis was a replacement for Bob Mitchum who turned it down and Marlon Brando who was not available. I think Curtis matches Poitier despite again being an unusual choice.  He too, was ‘hot’ property at the time and it was good to see both names ‘above the title’.

Besides the casting, the main strength of the film is the succession of action scenes with the two men shackled together trying to overcome very difficult obstacles. Sam Leavitt won the Oscar for B+W cinematography, but overall the ‘feel’ of the film shot on Universal’s back lot seemed to me almost reminiscent of US TV series. The landscapes didn’t have the authenticity shooting on real ‘southern’ locations might have given them. The film was screened from a 35mm film in good condition. IMDB suggests it should be 1:1.85, but the projected in Glasgow looked like 1:1.66 to me.

Cara Williams as the abandoned farmer’s wife who waits on Joker and Noah

Whatever the message in 1958, I do think the film feels dated now. I’m disappointed because I want to applaud Stanley Kramer for trying to make serious films dealing with major issues. It occurs to me that, for my generation, the films of the late 1960s represented the anger of the civil rights protests and were more successful in delivering a message. I’m thinking of the African-American hero of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), played by Duane Jones. For succeeding generations the moments of resistance in the films of earlier generations lose their power – unless the film retains its artistic and cultural status. I’m not sure that’s the case with The Defiant Ones. One sequence in particular typifies this when the two men stumble across a small farm in an unlikely location. There is a wholesome young boy and his mother, played by Cara Williams, an actor I hadn’t seen before but seemed to me to be in the Ann-Margaret/Lee Remick mould. She is remarkably glamorous farmer’s wife (the farmer has conveniently disappeared). What follows is exactly as we might expect.

As a counter to these retrospective observations about what was an important film, I should add that my particular interest in seeing The Defiant Ones came from watching Speak Like a Child (UK 1998), a rare (and rarely seen) fiction film from the celebrated British (and African) documentarist John Akomfrah. In John’s film, a mixed race teenager in a children’s home sneaks out to the cinema and sees The Defiant Ones with his (white) friend. This is an important experience in developing his sense of identity.

Buck and the Preacher (US 1972)

Sidney Poitier as a Western hero

Following the release of the Harry Belafonte ‘bio-documentary’ Sing Your Song in UK cinemas, I decided to look at some of the Belafonte movies available on DVD. In all the coverage of the new documentary relatively little has been said about Belafonte’s film work – which though not extensive was important in the development of African-American cinema, not least because the actor-singer produced his own films at a time when few African-Americans had any direct power in the industry. Belafonte’s second independent production company, Belafonte Enterprises, made the film in conjunction with Columbia. Belafonte took the second lead, but the star and director of the film was Sidney Poitier (who took over from the first director, Joseph Sargent). Ruby Dee, often paired with Poitier as an actor and with Belafonte as an activist, was billed third. The script was by the distinguished TV writer Ernest Kinoy who had written another Sidney Poitier script, Brother John, a year earlier and who would go on to contribute scripts to the TV serial Roots (1977) and its sequel in 1979. The music for the film was composed by Benny Carter, the great jazz band leader, and includes contributions from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Buck and the Preacher belongs to the cycle of ‘revisionist Westerns’ in the early 1970s when the counter culture and the anti-war movement in the US managed to find an outlet in the New Hollywood. This was the period of Soldier Blue (1970) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), but the most popular Western of the 1970s was Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles (1974). What links these three very different films is a debunking of the mythology of the West and a reappraisal of the representation of characters who would later be known as ‘African-Americans’ and ‘Native Americans’. This same period also saw the commercial success of a range of ‘Blaxploitation’ films, led by urban crime thrillers like Shaft (1971) and this development also included Blaxploitation Westerns, especially the cycle of films starring Fred Williamson – The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), its sequel The Soul of Nigger Charley (1973) and Boss Nigger (Black Bounty Hunter, 1974). The creation of Black ‘super-heroes’ in different settings attracted audiences (partly because of the provocative titles which created controversy) but didn’t really engage with the Western myths or the conventions of the genre as such. In his magisterial BFI Companion to the Western (1971), editor Ed Buscombe argues that Buck and the Preacher did precisely that – and that makes it an important film both for African-American cinema and the Western.

Outline

The narrative focuses on an aspect of American history largely neglected by Hollywood – the attempt by freed slaves from the South, after the Civil War ended, to head West on wagon trains, seeking new lands. Poitier plays ‘Buck’, an ex Union Cavalry sergeant, who sets himself up as a wagonmaster who will pilot wagon trains through hostile territory. He makes a deal with the local Native American chief to allow the wagon trains an unhindered passage, but he also has to battle a band of ex-Confederate soldiers. These men have been hired by plantation-owners in the South to drive the freed slaves back into low-paid employment in the cottonfields and their tactics are vicious and uncompromising. Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife and Belafonte plays a con-man preacher who clashes with Buck but eventually forms an uneasy alliance with him to fight the ex-Confederates.

Analysis

The history of African-American cinema is usually presented via three distinct phases in Hollywood and then a question mark about what is happening today. In the first phase early American cinema and Hollywood in the silent era drew upon a range of Black stereotypes that had been developed in the nineteenth century. Donald Bogle’s ‘Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films’ revised in 1992 has the main title of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks. These five types defined the roles offered to Black actors in mainstream Hollywood (although initially, following the practices of minstrelsy, white actors ‘blacked up’ for some roles). In the 1930s Black entrepreneurs struggled to offer an alternative to this Hollywood condescension but they did manage to produce low-budget independent Black films exploring popular genres – including Black Westerns such as the ‘Western Musical’ Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and the much earlier The Bull-Dogger (1922).

Hollywood eventually reacted to the potential of the Black popular audience with the gradual development of mainstream films with Black themes – and predominantly Black casting – by the late 1940s and early 1950s when Poitier and Belafonte were young actors seeking work. This was the second phase of African-American cinema with films that were presented as ‘liberal’ dramas attempting to deal with some elements of social realism. However, the old stereotypes remained in place. Sidney Poitier was the 1950s ‘good Negro’, essentially a ‘Tom’ derived from the character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ruby Dee was the ‘good Negro wife’ and Harry Belafonte was seen as the ‘beautiful, sexy young man’ – the ‘Buck’ (which he resisted strongly and which no doubt was one of the reasons why he focused more on his musical career). The third phase was associated with the Blaxploitation cycle which critiqued the old stereotypes and the most immediate signal of change was evident in the casting of Poitier, quite literally, as ‘Buck’ with Ruby Dee still his wife, but now supporting him in actions which under the conventions of the Western represent resistance to the dominant ideology. Meanwhile, Belafonte is cast as the ‘Preacher’, a con-man role which featured in several of the earlier Black Westerns of the 1930s/40s.

Harry Belafonte as the long-haired ‘Preacher’

Buck and the Preacher is partly a comedy and that may be both why the film was a relative commercial success, but also why it hasn’t perhaps been given the status it deserves. As Ed Buscombe points out, the script is intelligent and knowing in its play with the conventions and the performances are very enjoyable. Poitier doesn’t just play the ‘Buck’, he overplays the role, sporting two mini-howitzers rather than conventional six-guns. There is an exhilaration in the way in which all three leads become ‘Western heroes’ and Bogle tells us that Black audiences cheered at the sight of the three heroes racing their horses across the screen pursued by a sheriff’s posse – I won’t spoil the narrative by revealing why they are on the run. The smiles are more wry in the key scene when Buck negotiates with the Native American chief who responds to the argument that Black and Red men have both suffered at the hands of the Whites by pointing out that Buck had served in the Union Army. This again feels like a commentary on Poitier’s previous roles in Hollywood – as well as, perhaps, a comment on the way in which Black soldiers had become a crucial element in the US Army in Vietnam.

I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable Western and a film that at least lifts a corner of the carpet under which the African-American experience of the ‘Old West’ has been carefully swept by Hollywood. You can download my notes on Harry Belafonte and Hollywood here: BelafonteNotes