Sidney Poitier and the Burden of Responsibility
How music helped match the finest moments in the film legend’s greatest roles
Martin Ritt’s 1961 film Paris Blues, my favorite movie with Sidney Poitier, begins with a scene in a jazz nightclub.
The musicians on the bandstand, Paul Newman and Poitier miming trombone and saxophone, respectively, are playing “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and the camera shows us everyone in the audience in rapt attention, or in groove-nirvana. There’s are glimpses of an interracial couple, and a gay couple, people of all ages, hipsters and tourists, and it’s a kind of utopia. It’s the Paris of the early ’60s, Godard and Karina, Juliette Greco and Miles Davis, Malle and Moreau, and if Ritt’s direction is squarer than that of the young generation of homegrown auteurs, well, he was making a mainstream Hollywood movie after all, and certain conventions had to be upheld.
Which meant that while there are hints that the movie could have gone down a more interesting path, that the leading ladies, Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, two Americans on a Parisian two-week holiday, might not have been paired with Newman and Poitier but the other way around, that would have been too far for American moviegoers. Instead, while Newman and Woodward get to have a post-coital scene (he shirtless, she in a racy strapless corset), Poitier and Carroll stroll through Paris, talking about Race Relations in America.
They are falling for each other, and their early scenes have a relaxed, flirtatious vibe (“I like the way you walk,” he tells her): you almost never saw Poitier turning on the charm in a sexual way in movies in the ’60s, and it’s so much fun to watch, the banter. He could have been one of the great romantic leads, because who could not be wooed? I imagine him staying in Paris for a while and making Charade opposite Audrey Hepburn. What a match that would have been.
The Poitier-Carroll love story becomes a contest. He wants to stick around, and wants her to move to France, where he doesn’t have to face racism every single day, where he’s not a “Negro musician,” just a musician. She wants him to come back to the U.S. with her, where things are, she says, getting better, and where their home is. But is it? Is home about family and community, or about being free from the constant hassle? That’s where the tension in the film is. Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic, wrote, “Sidney Poitier, whose story this ought to be, is superb.” We keep returning, though, to Newman and Woodward, who seem to be having some excellent vacation sex. Ultimately, Poitier decides that he’ll join her in America (Newman, meanwhile, is going to stay in Paris and work on his “serious” music). And with that, he starts to carry the weight he schlepped around for most of the rest of the decade. He will do the hard thing, maintain his pride and strength in a country that doesn’t have much respect for him. He’ll demand respect.
VIDEO: Paris Blues (1961)
When I say Paris Blues is at the top of my Poitier movie list, it’s not that I don’t recognize how schematic and compromised it is, how it hedges all its bets. But there is the Poitier-Carroll chemistry, the black-and-white cinematography, the Duke Ellington score (when the band plays “Mood Indigo” at their club, you can feel the whole room swoon), and a scene where Louis Armstrong, playing a fictional jazz legend Wild Bill Moore, drops by the club (with his whole combo) and swings into a raucous jam session. You want to see pure joy on screen? Watch Newman and Poitier watch Armstrong. Everything lights up. You don’t for one moment believe that Newman and Poitier are actually playing their instruments, but they pretend well enough. There’s a suggestion that Poitier might land a gig with Moore’s band in the States, so good for him.
After Paris Blues, which was not a hit (it wasn’t a great box office year for jazz movies; Cassavettes’ Too Late Blues flopped also), Poitier made some respectable films and, it can’t be overstated, made cinematic history. He was the first Black actor to win an Oscar (for Lilies of the Field), and had a remarkable year as a box office star in 1967, with In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. His performances were always compelling—he’d been a force on screen since playing one of the unruly kids in Blackboard Jungle—but his characters were so restrained, so responsible. He was there to teach us all a lesson, and the filmmakers he worked with (Ritt, Daniel Petrie, Norman Jewison, Stanley Kramer) wielded heavy hammers.
And where was the leading lady to loosen him up, show his seductive side the way those Paris walks with Carroll did? Nowhere. In Lilies of the Field, he was surrounded by nuns. His co-star in A Patch of Blue, Elizabeth Hartman, played a blind girl (no romance), and when Hollywood had the terrific idea of pairing him with another recent Oscar winner, Anne Bancroft, in The Slender Thread, they never had a scene together. The “slender thread” was a telephone line. The girls in To Sir With Love may have gone “from crayons to perfume” under his tutelage, but if he caught a whiff of Judy Geeson’s perfume while they danced, quite a bit apart, to a tune by the Mindbenders, that’s as far as it went (Geeson and Poitier did have a chaste hug in the appalling To Sir With Love II, thirty-something years later).
AUDIO: Quincy Jones “Main Title Theme” for The Slender Thread (1966)
All of those movies, even the stodgiest ones, are worth seeing, to see his intensity on screen, his determination to give the most one-dimensional characters vitality and depth. There are the zippy soundtracks, many of them by Quincy Jones, starting with The Slender Thread in 1965, up to Brother John in 1971, and a couple by Curtis Mayfield (the Poitier-directed Let’s Do It Again and its predecessor A Piece of the Action).
But the film I cued up when I heard that Sidney Poitier had passed away was the one where he was a free man in Paris, squiring a tourist as beautiful as he was, with the sights of the city surrounding them, and Duke Ellington’s music as sonic accompaniment. Does it get better than that?
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