NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 116

Poitier had been nominated in 1958 for “Best Actor in a Leading Role,” along with Tony Curtis, for his part in The Defiant Ones, but his performance in Lilies of the Field ultimately earned him the Oscar for best actor. Poitier’s Oscar reception speech on April 14, 1964, suggests the racial theme and his own personal struggle. When he remarked “‘It has been a long journey to this moment’” (Ewers 1969, 108), he was not only referring to his own career, but implicitly to progress made by black people in general, another example of his doubling for people of African descent. Furthermore, he did not respond in the expected manner of jubilation with a lavish celebration, but rather a “small dinner party with Diahann Carroll and a mutual friend” (Ewers 1969, 109). Also, his reception in his homeland of the Bahamas was exuberant, with banners identifying him as “our hero sidney; hail sidney; greatest actor in the world” (Hoffman 1971,150). On the whole, Poitier viewed the Oscar as “a symbol of accomplishment in a very exact discipline” (Mapp 2008, 17). 114 Although the Oscar victory for Poitier signaled a major achievement for a black actor, the film itself, when viewed in hindsight, points to certain dilemmas of black male representation, as does Driving Miss Daisy (1987). By continuing to reward and celebrate films that depict narrow, confined roles for adult Black men, Hollywood is sending a clear message to Black male youth: Those who adopt the styles of Lilies’s Homer Smith and Driving’s Hoke Colburn will be ushered into American society at correspondingly appropriate levels. No others need apply. (Turner 1991, 343) This sentiment concerning the type of role Poitier portrayed in Lilies is echoed by Kristin Hunter-Lattany, who argues that the label of “‘Saint’” Sidney was the result of such films as To Sir, with Love (1967), Lilies of the Field, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), where “Poitier was surrounded by an all-enveloping sack of plastic goodness so tough he seemed to know it was futile to attempt to punch his way out of it” (Hunter-Lattany 1984, 83). Similar concerns about Poitier’s image in Lilies of the Field are expressed by Lewis Nkosi, a South African writer, who viewed Hollywood depictions of black males as usually that of stereotypical pimps or alcoholics or, as in this case, the saint, “especially helping white people for nothing.” Overall, however, Nkosi concludes that “[o]ne has to applaud his [Poitier’s] final recognition, though deploring” the motivation for his being given the award (Nkosi 1965). In a more positive analysis, it is important to consider how untapped elements of Poitier’s talents were transferred to the character of Homer. The screenplay “offered Poitier a complete change of pace, as well as a chance to demonstrate his flair for comedy” (Marill 1978, 112). His representation as a self-employed itinerant construction worker, capable of architectural design and expert handling of heavy earth moving equipment, counters images of African Americans during the Civil Rights era as suffering from racial oppression — without technical skills or organizational ability. Although at moments his role appears comic, the underlying message is that black males can assert their intelligence but, ironically, as in other Hollywood films, Homer Smith is the only African American character in the production; nevertheless, it has been suggested that “Homer is not presented as a ‘problem,’ but as an ordinary human being” (Johnson 1965, 17). As Thomas Cripps observes, however, Poitier may have had to downplay certain aspects of his portrayal because the film included nuns, therefore, limiting his characterization as a sexual being (Cripps 1967, 269)).2