NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 117

In addition to racial ideas, religious elements are overtly suggested in the film’s title, a quote from Matthew 6:28, which alludes to degrees of faith.3 For the most part, religious representations are governed by certain age-old Hollywood restrictions based on the Motion Picture Production Code from the thirties to sixties: “‘no film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith’” and “no ministers of religion ‘in their characters as ministers of religion’ should be used as comic characters or villains” (Keyser 1984, 93). This does not necessarily apply to nuns in the film, however, who are sometimes comic figures, although they are not the subjects of ridicule. The film’s message contains a range of religious themes, evoking Southern Baptist black church styles, in contrast to those of a more rigid Catholicism, and Homer’s personal understanding of religious faith is deistic rather than theistic, the belief system supported by Mother Maria. In general, “Catholicism” was in the American popular imagination, during the early sixties, with the presidency of John F. Kennedy and the papacy of Pope John xxiii, both of whom “symbolized the vibrant and fresh new beginnings being made by the Catholic church and the nation” (Marlett 2009, 150). Despite his rugged individualism, Homer is forced to consider that his achievements are the result of assistance from a greater power, as stressed by Mother Maria. These differences create personal dilemmas for Homer in the construction of the chapel and generate certain ironies. Homer’s pursuit of individualistic spiritual beliefs is ironic, because of the assumed communal nature of black spirituality and its function in the Civil Rights movement. Also relevant to black spirituality is the signature song, “Amen,” delivered by Poitier and weaved into the film score. However, some viewers may be disappointed to know that Poitier does not actually sing “Amen,” but that it is dubbed by Jester Hairston. In fact, Poitier admits to being “tone deaf,” unable to sing or “reproduce a note” (“Trivia”; Poitier, Interview). In the film, the religious and racial undertones are given a unique presentation by their placement in a Western landscape. From the opening, the arid American West is featured as the overarching setting. The opening shot is perhaps a classic Hollywood visual perspective, the open road, from which Homer’s station wagon emerges out of the backdrop of the mountains. This context for an African American character is distinctly different from those in films heavily determined by race issues, in that the setting is not a rural Southern landscape or urban environment, but one symbolizing the freedom of the open road. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE Aram Goudsouzian argues that “[r]ace is underplayed throughout Lilies of the Field — most references to black culture are employed for laughs” (Goudsouzian 2004, 212). This underplaying of race, however, does not negate its significance though muted or submerged in an American West setting, where religion, piety, and faith seem to be the dominant conceptions. Race is portrayed in primarily two ways: 1) the blatant allusion to racial stereotypes and adversarial white hierarchical attitudes involving black masculinity; 2) subtle, humorous or innocuous allusions to racial attitudes. Adversarial racial issues are shown particularly through Homer’s interaction with the owner of a construction company, Mr. Ashton (played by director Nelson), whose references to “boy,” for example, are cleverly countered in Homer’s responses. Humorous or innocuous allusion are developed in Homer’s relationship with the nuns, especially Mother Maria, and with certain Mexican American characters, the latter a reminder of the way race is projected through the representation Mexican Americans, who assist in the building of the chapel and who are depicted as without racial prejudice. (Apparently, the cast of Mexican Americans was drawn from non-professional actors.) 115 PHOTOGRAPH BY © 1963 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER STUDIOS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. RACE AND RELIGION IN LILIES OF THE FIELD