To Sidney, with Love

Sidney Poitier. How do I describe a man who stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963? How do I describe a man who often was the only African American on the set of his movies? How do I describe a man who makes me laugh and breaks my heart because I know the beleaguered characters of racial injustice he played was also a role he lived?

The delights of old Hollywood tickle the imagination and have pleased millions of viewers throughout the ages, but when the studio released A Patch of Blue in 1965, some theaters in southern states cut the interracial kiss between Sidney and his costar Elizabeth Hartman. The world was changing, but it still had a long way to go.

But I digress. You know all about Martin Luther King Jr. and his courageous civil rights movement that changed America.

However, it’s just possible that Sidney Poitier is new to you. I can’t go into every single detail of his life, although I can wish him a happy 91st birthday, which he will turn on February 20th, 2018. And I can tell you about my favorite of his movies, so far. I have to add the proviso of so far because I have only seen a handful of his films, despite my respect for his work.

Here, though, A Patch of Blue has won my heart. I was in my early twenties the first time I saw A Patch of Blue. It seared itself into my memory. It’s the story of Selina, a young woman, blind and abused, raised by a racially prejudiced mother and grandfather. While she’s stringing beads in the park one day, the only job she’s able to maintain to help raise her family’s poverty level income, she knocks her box of beads over into the grass. Scrambling to gather them back up, her hands collide with that of another person, some kind Samaritan who stopped on his way to work to help her collect her beads. This is Gordon, played by Sidney, a gentle and compassionate man who sees a girl in distress and stops to help when no one else will.

The rest of the film continues in much the same vein. Selina’s world is narrow, crammed into the minuscule four walls of her family’s crummy apartment. She never knows from one day to the next whether her mother (an Oscar winning performance by Shelley Winters) will be drunk or bring home a man, or whether she and Ole Pa will indulge in one of their rip-roaring fights to rattle the foundations of the old apartment building. But suddenly here’s this man who takes an interest in her. He tells her strange things: she can learn to dial a telephone, she can find her own way to the park with proper training, she can even learn to read, and that yes, she is a beautiful, desirable woman.

Gordon teaches her that being blind gives no one the right to treat her like a burden.

My love of A Patch of Blue is twofold.

First, I’m drawn to stories of broken and hurting people. Not stories that offer no hope, but the kind that do. And for me, this movie is the best in hopeful storytelling. Selina is so trapped in her current life with her family, but she doesn’t have to stay there. All she needed was one person to crack open a window and show her that patch of blue. I know, I know, it’s a “love is blind” story, but you know what, authors wouldn’t keep writing them and we wouldn’t keep reading or watching them if there wasn’t something in the whole “love is blind” adage. Selina’s entire future takes a different course because one man let in the light.

Second, this is Sidney Poitier at his finest. For obvious reasons, the race card gets played. Selina’s family hates the idea of a black man befriending Selina, but Gordon’s own brother also objects to Selina. These two brothers have worked to become men of worth and value to society. Sidney’s role is a comfortable middle-class man with a solid job and what you might almost term a ritzy apartment. But he still takes time to see those around him. He doesn’t close himself off from the hurt he sees just because there might be a difference in color or in station, which there is, meaning his station in life is so far above Selina’s family.

While he didn’t win an award for his performance, I wish he had. His Oscar win for Lilies of the Field in 1963 was groundbreaking and I recommend everyone who expresses an interest in Sidney to see that movie as well. But his role as Gordon in A Patch of Blue is just as impacting as his role as Homer, the unwilling fix-it man to a group of Catholic nuns headed by a German mother superior living in Arizona.

A pebble tossed into a lake creates ripples that reach farther than we ever imagine. Sidney Poitier is one of those pebbles.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Carissa Horton works at Compassion International whose tagline reads “Releasing Children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” She is an avid crafter, a prolific blogger on Musings of an Introvert about all things literary and film-based, and dreams of getting her stories published.

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4 thoughts on “To Sidney, with Love

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  1. My own favorite Poitier movie is Blackboard Jungle (1955), but he’s been amazing in everything I’ve seen him in. I love that you highlighted a lesser-known movie here instead of going with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or To Sir with Love, which tend to get so much attention.

    I just got a copy of his western Buck and the Preacher and intend to watch it for the first time on his birthday in his honor.

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    1. Wow, I had no idea that he was ever in a western! Like I said, I need to work at tracking down his other films. He’s sort of like Gregory Peck for me. An actor I love dearly after watching just a handful of his movies. I’ll have to mine for some more.

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      1. Poitier made at least two westerns that I know of: Buck and the Preacher and Duel at Diablo. I haven’t seen either of them yet, though.

        I feel very similarly — I think I’ve seen Poitier in six or seven movies, but he’s so outstanding in them that I have the same kind of fondness for him I have for actors I’ve seen in dozens of films. An amazing presence, and So Much Talent.

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