NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 115

Lilies of the Field covers the same overall storyline as the novel, which includes brief illustrations depicting Homer in certain scenes that would eventually become key elements of the screenplay. As is generally the case, the novel offers deeper levels of characterization through third person narrative commentary. In addition, a theatrical version of the novel was produced, which contained the following comment regarding Homer as a black character: “In the dramatization contained here the role of Homer has been written so that it may be played by either a Negro or a white actor, with alternative lines indicated, where necessary, should the latter course be followed” (Leslie and Barrett 1967, 3). Directed and produced by Ralph Nelson, who had directed Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), Lilies of the Field asserts issues of race through understated commentary and humorous interactions between Homer and Mother Maria, the “mother superior” of the handful of Catholic nuns who have migrated to Arizona from Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Other aspects of the production confirm a new direction for Poitier, who earned “a percentage of the film’s profits” rather than a salary. Nelson convinced Poitier to take the role, which was designed “simply for an actor without regard to race” (Marill 1978, 111-112). Lilies of the Field, which had box office earnings of $2.5 million by April of 1964, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on July 15, 1963, earning Poitier his second Silver Bear for best actor, and was later “promoted” by Poitier in London, Paris, Rome, and Copenhagen (Goudsouzian 2004, 213, 214). Neither Ralph Nelson nor Poitier expected the film to be a box office success. Beyond its surprising reception and earnings, it also marked the recognition of Poitier as a distinguished actor, as stated in a New York review: “‘if you have any doubts about his [Poitier’s] stature consider the Lilies of the Field’” (Ewers 108). Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, called it “a bright little film that is so gentle and ingenious in constructing a modern parable that it fairly disarms the stubborn critic who would apply the yardstick of logic to it” (Crowther 1963). The Los Angeles Times considered the film “‘A gem of a motion picture;” The Hollywood Reporter, “‘a funny, sentimental, charming and uplifting film’” (Jacket Cover); and the Philadelphia Enquirer, “‘a simple motion picture transformed into a masterpiece’” (Hoffman 1971, 150). BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Another way to understand the significance of Poitier’s role is that he represented a symbolic double for black America’s racial condition. In other words, Lilies of the Field supported the “project to create an image that would match and make sense of the policy rulings the naacp lawyers were asking the Supreme Court to make” (Farley 2000, 1030). In 1963, as Patricia Turner observes, “The Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) was persistent in its efforts to make the motion picture industry more responsive to Blacks.” (Turner 1991, 343) Lilies of the Field, which opened on October 1, 1963, in New York at the Murray Hill Theatre, was a turning point of sorts in the representation of race in a Hollywood production. Based on the 1962 novel by William E. Barrett, titled The Lilies of the Field, with a screenplay by James Poe and music by Jerry Goldsmith, the United Artists film presents Poitier as an ex-g.i. construction worker who assists in the building of a chapel for a small congregation of Mexican Americans.1 The decision to turn the novel into a film occurred through a series of interactions, the book having been singled out by theatrical agent Fred Ingels, “who thought it ideal material for a motion picture.” In Poitier’s words, “Together, with strong assistance from Martin Baum, they brought the magic of that little book to the motion picture screen” and with a minimal budget of $250,000 (Poitier, This Life 1980, 248). 113 Retrospectively, nearly fifty years from the Oscar recognition, the question can still be posed: to what extent did Poitier participate in the making of a whole character, one who was representative of black male aspirations of the time? In its day, the film was considered “an important landmark” because it showed a black “free citizen, roaming across the country in an automobile and coming into serio-comic emotional struggles with a group of expatriate German nuns,” led by Mother Maria, played by Lilia Skala (Johnson 1965, 17). On the other hand, it might be argued that Lilies of the Field supports “an entirely assimilationist posture, a phase of Poitier’s film character that continued throughout the sixties” (Kelley 1983, 125). Furthermore, certain segments of the black audience may not have been as accepting of Poitier’s role and might have perceived him as “submitting to the compromises structured by mainstream racial attitudes” (Goudsouzian 2004, 214).