A Patch of Blue
Aside from figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I can’t think of a person who has done more for civil rights than Sidney Poitier. King was the man on the political side, pushing new laws and breaking old barriers on the battlefields. Poitier was up there on the silver screen, where his influence was arguably even more profound, because his movies showed how things could be different. How a black man could be a movie star, a hero. Right from his first movie, No Way Out, they were usually about race, and racial dilemmas: in that case whether it was incumbent on him as a doctor to save the life of a racist pig (Richard Widmark, actually a flaming liberal) who had been doing his best to kill him. Then there was The Defiant Ones, and his Oscar-winner, Lilies of the Field. All of them were ground-breaking for African-Americans. (He is actually African-Bahamian-American, and for 15 years has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.) A few years after this one he wowed us with In the Heat of the Night, as a black man in the south, smarter than all the white residents put together. He won all our hearts and even managed to win a little piece of the racist heart of Rod Steiger.
But I submit to you that this was his most ground-breaking movie of all. I have searched all over the Internet, and no one has mentioned an earlier on-screen kiss between a black man and a white woman. Unless someone can point out an earlier one, I will regard this as the first. (And, of course, in those morally unreconstructed parts of this great racist country of ours, the kiss was cut out in all prints shown in the South. I saw this in Beaumont, Texas, with my girlfriend, and I wish to hell I could remember if they kissed. I suspect they didn’t.) Hell, in 1965 there were still many states where marriage between the races was illegal. It’s hard to imagine, today, just how radical this kiss was. Elizabeth Hartman is blind, doesn’t know that this man who has become her only friend is black … for a while. But when she kisses him, she knows he is “colored.”
So that’s the social significance. As a film, as a drama, this holds up surprisingly well. Poor little blind Selina knows nothing about anything, as she has been held a virtual prisoner, an unpaid maid, by her nightmare mother and worthless grandfather. Naturally she would fall in love with the first person who has ever shown her kindness. Shelley Winters, who for some reason could do dreadful better than any woman who ever lived, won a supporting Oscar for this, and she was astonished, speechless, because she hated the role. A liberal, and feminist, a fundamentally nice woman, it must have been hard for her to play a woman—a two-dollar whore, and overpriced at that rate—with absolutely no redeeming characteristics. But it all works because of her. You cringe, you gasp, you shudder at the sheer evil of this woman, and I am so grateful that she played it. Hail Shelley!