NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 120

Significantly, issues of race and religion are intertwined at one specific moment in the film. Homer’s distress over accepting help from the Mexican community to build the chapel is expressed in a scene in the kitchen, where he tells Mother Maria about his obsession with wanting to build the chapel by himself: 118 “…all my life, I really wanted to build something. Maybe if I had an education, I would have been an architect, or an engineer — throw the Golden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay. And even maybe build a rocket ship to Venus…. I wanted to build it myself. (Lilies of the Field, Drew’s). Mother Maria’s answer is that “God is building the chapel” and that Homer is “feeling sorry for [himself ] because you are not Him [God]” (Lilies of the Field, Drew’s). The irony and the doubling in the film is reflected here in that the audience may envision Homer’s sentiments as those of a collective black male but also of Poitier himself, the actor who struggled for recognition. Despite his religious ambiguity, in many ways, Homer is a Christ-like savior figure — suggested in the scene where he washes the feet of the nuns who have been mixing mortar by pouring water over their legs — reminiscent of Jesus washing the feet of Mary Magdalene. A blend of both saint and savior, Homer is also the rugged individualist of the old West, developed in relation to the other racial groups in the film. When the Mexican community comes to his assistance with building materials, bricks and a stained-glass window, Homer is reluctant to accept their collective assistance expressed simply, “We have come to help you.” Homer tells Mother Maria, “You only prayed for one man to build your chapel?” When he denies their help, he confirms his obsession with self-success and the individual quest rather than the communal effort, emphasizing what Juan mockingly calls a “one-man cathedral.” Juan identifies Homer as “El boss,” the black male in charge of Mexican labor, suggesting another racial hierarchy. Furthermore, the most obvious representation of Homer as contractor or “boss” occurs, when Ashton returns and Juan says to Ashton, “Some boss.” The Ashton-Homer interchange — “[W]hen you’re finished, I could use a foreman, Mr. Smith” — shows Ashton’s transformation, respecting Homer as a “man” who can help him to build a highway. The “Mr.” title is also used by Homer to address Ashton when Homer declines the offer, using the words of the unsettled rambling “cowboy”: “But when I’m finished here, I’ll be moving on” (Lilies of the Field, Drew’s). The climactic camera shot of the closing scene is that of Homer putting the finishing touches on the steeple, where the cross is in the frame, and Homer is slowly cementing it in place. When asked by a worker if he can help, Homer says, “This part is mine.” In the score, the harmonica is used to reflect the lonely Western song style, a fitting accompaniment to Homer’s pursuit of individualism. Homer, looking proudly at his achievement, writes his name in the wet cement, and then holds the wooden cross while looking skyward. When he descends the steeple, one worker asks in English, “Senor Smith? Will it have bells?” Homer’s answer, “Some day,” points to a future realization, perhaps not only relating to the church itself, but to racial equality for African Americans (Lilies of the Field, Drew’s). Most important, Homer is thanked by Mother Maria, who unknowingly recognizes his personal achievement, giving him the satisfaction that could not be achieved through spiritual gratification. There is an additional closing irony, however, relating to whether credit should really be given to Homer or to a higher power. Does he represent, as indicated by Jeffrey Smith, “savior cowboys who rescue feckless frontier towns, [but are] not interested in settling down or being thanked” (Smith 2001, 206)? Not completely, since Homer is very much interested in “being thanked,” especially by Mother Maria. PHOTOGRAPH BY © 1963 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER STUDIOS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Perhaps, the most memorable use of the spirituality is achieved through music and the signature song, when after dinner, Homer first sings “Frankie and Johnny were lovers” but changes to what he calls a “down home go to meeting song,” in contrast to the staid hymns sung by the nuns. The song “Amen” involves call-and-response, black Baptist styles and body language, where certain of the nuns rock from side to side. This scene is framed with alternating camera shots of Homer’s exuberance and Mother Maria’s growing seriousness.