Sidney Poitier and Hollywood’s Dainty Progressivism

My months-long study of Sidney Poitier has been a most enriching and personal experience. As a white woman, film student, and world citizen, learning about the legend, his journey, and his films imparted me with substantial lessons that will stay with me as I venture into the obfuscating jungle of Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier, a Bahamian native, immigrated to America when he was twenty-two years old. With a heavy accent and weak reading ability, the young man became an actor by attending a newspaper-advertised audition. Poitier had no aspirations to become the icon he is now regarded as and, because of the time’s political climate, he didn’t even consider the possibility. By 1958, however, Poitier began to receive respectful attention from the industry he’d been participating in for the previous decade. That year, (1958) Tony Curtis shared top billing with Poitier in Stanley Kramer’s Academy Award nominee for Best Picture, The Defiant Ones. Embodying the role of Noah Cullen earned Poitier his first Oscar nomination and though he did not win for that performance, five years later, he won for a different one. Poitier was the first black man to win an Oscar for the 1963 film, Lillies of the Field.

With this essay, I will attempt to answer the question of why Poitier won the Oscar for the forgettable comedy, Lillies of the Field, over the integral race relations film and considerably more famous, The Defiant Ones. From what I’ve gathered, the main distinction between the films and Poitier’s role in them is in the admission of his blackness. Where The Defiant Ones leans into Poitier’s marginalized identity to trace the colored seeds of hatred, Lillies of the Field dismisses it in favor of heroizing his character. Thusly, the deracialized portrait painted by Lillies of the Field supports Hollywood’s pattern of rewarding “safe, self-congratulatory, white-created films” that uphold American Christian traditions and provide catharsis to the white patriarchy through their creation of a reductive, fictional equality that ultimately reinforces non-white and non-male subjugation (Chow, 2019).

In 1929, a private banquet was held in honor of the first-ever Academy Awards. The notion of respecting film as a serious artform was still in its infancy and the brainchild of the Academy of Motions Pictures and Sciences (AMPS) played a major role in achieving cultural reverence for the medium. To put the cinema of 1929 into perspective, sound was introduced to film in 1927 (only two years prior) and the idea of social cinema {a cinematic storytelling style defined by realistic characters, provocative subjects, and social statements that contribute to an extra-cellular, cultural conversation} was first proposed in 1930 (one year after the first Oscars) during Jean Vigo’s famous Paris lecture. If we accept progress as a slow-moving vehicle, the reverberations of Vigo’s words would take some time to be felt. Meanwhile, from 1929-1946, the classical period of cinema is in full swing, defined by a “stringent sense of unity and an equally rigid resistance to innovation” (Casper, 2007).

Eleven years after the first Academy Awards, the 1940 Oscars awarded its first ever non-white actor, Hattie McDaniel, for her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). The idealized civil war epic is accredited with creating the most “well-known and enduring caricature” of black women—so much so that the trope is literally named after the character, Mammy. In Jim Crow America’s effort to justify slavery, Mammy, the fiercely loyal and jubilant servant of white folk, is used to prove black content with servitude. While the inclusion of a non-white actor in the award ceremony is a notable example of progress, rewarding the actor in a Mammy role reinforces the subliminal message of the character’s construction—to comfort white America’s slavery induced guilt by erasing black suffering (Pilgrim, 2000).

By Sidney Poitier’s film debut in 1950, the classical period was over. Being that the postwar period (otherwise referred to as the Post-classical period and taking place from 1946-1962) was a reaction to the Classical era, it sought to question and subvert everything that came before. The response was “tilting, questioning, and toppling the thematic status quo,” and the introduction of self-reflexivity, first person point-of-view, Freud’s psychology, the Method, and Vigo’s social cinema to lend the films of the time an honest realism that was previously lacking (Casper, 2000). Freud made Hollywood look inward and Stanislovsky’s method made actors do the same by suggesting they ground their fictional characters in their real emotions and experiences. This survey of the internal world led to the recognition of a crumbling male psyche. Between the Cold War paranoia, the breakdown of American invincibility with the Korean Fracas, post-Depression rise in status-seeking materialism, and the pre-diagnosed PTSD from fighting overseas, men were “addled, insecure, and defensive” (Casper, 2000). As such, multi-faceted, layered characters and their internal mechanisms (why they do what they do) replaced classical, consistent, one-note characters that were defined by their actions (what they do).

The first phase of Poitier’s career is comprised of social cinema supporting roles where his character arc is tangential to a white man’s. Poitier’s blackness and the mainstream bias against it is used as the internal conflict of the white protagonist. The films No Way Out (1950), Cry, the beloved Country (1951), and Blackboard Jungle (1955) use Poitier and racial dynamics to acknowledge racism (representation makes the issue visible) and make political statements. Poitier rose to prominence out of the censorship controversies and subsequent protests spurred by these earlier films.

The Defiant Ones begins the next phase of Poitier’s career as it’s what establishes him as the first black movie star. The Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer produced film is an eloquently written exploration of race and hatred. The film begins with a shot of a transport truck driving through a rainy evening. Accompanying the pitter-patter of the rain is the sound of Poitier’s off-screen vocal stylings. He sings the words “long gone to Kentucky” in a fashion lyrically and melodically reminiscent of Louie Armstrong’s “Long Gone (From Bowling Greens).” Two white police officers in the truck’s front seat are the first characters to fill the frame. Based on the officers’ faces, they do not appreciate the unwarranted soundtrack; they complain and discuss a potential punishment for the singer amongst themselves until one of them, incapable of containing his frustration, screams at the unseen vocalist. Instead of silencing him, the shout encourages the singer to raise his voice even louder. A medium shot of Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) chained to Joker (Tony Curtis), with each filling equal proportions of the frame, direct the audience to the rebellious, singing encumbrance. As Cullen’s singing intensifies, so does Joker’s apparent indignation. The tension comes to a head upon Joker’s referral to Cullen as the “n” word. Cullen responds by violently pulling Joker to his feet and promising he will kill him if that word ever leaves his mouth again. The confrontation is cut short when the vehicle is flipped on its rear, killing everyone inside except for the unlikely duo who were able to escape.

This opening scene sets an aptly defiant tone for the rest of the picture to play out. Two prisoners, one white racist and one black man, have a chance at liberation, but only if they can work together. As the men make unsuccessful attempts to break free from the chains that bond them, the police begin their search to re-constrain them. The pessimistic officers assume that the racial disparity between the men will keep them from a successful escape proclaiming, “they won’t get five miles without killing each other.” At first, it seems like the cops may be right. Cullen and Joker can’t seem to stop bickering and there’s a palpable sense of disdain between the two. Joker’s privilege is immediately recognizable as his being chained to a black man keeps him from taking the easy path through the south. Instead, they have to take the longer and harder journey to liberation through the swampy north. As if to say, the road to freedom is long and winding and if the path to freedom is exclusive then it’s no path at all.

Off to the north, the men go. To get fuel for their travels, they must live off the land and encompass the fantasy of primal masculinity. As they feast on nature’s bounty, Cullen responds to Joker’s concern over the various animal calls with the hefty words, “they’re animals—they’re either being hunted or hunting—either way they don’t make no noise…they only make noise when they die.” The biting phrase is a referral to the insidious status quo of separatism and silence’s complicity in perpetuating it. The moment reminded me of Martin Neimöller’s famous Holocaust-associated poem “First they came…” and considering the English translation’s circulation in the 50s, it’s a possible inspiration. Joker may sit above Cullen on the social hierarchy, but even he isn’t at the top; Joker’s lower-class status and experience serving the rich, white man establishes a common ground with Cullen’s far superior intellect acting as a conduit for further understanding.

The bondage between them forces and relishes in an uninhibited physical intimacy that surpasses the oppressive physical tension typically seen between presumed heterosexual men. Their lives literally depend on each other, so they bypass earning stripes as reliable and trustworthy; the mutual trust is a fact and doubting it puts them both in danger. As they follow each other deeper into the unknown, they share more of their thoughts and feelings. Noah tells Joker how the white man’s first breath is filled with hate and the hate he breathes is the same hate he spits out when he calls Cullen the “n” word or “boy.” Joker says that’s how the world is and trying to change it will only cause misery. In between each enlightening discussion is another physical obstacle that they must overcome together. The structure is very linear—every scene builds on the previous one and each one makes them closer.

When they later wait for a quiet, agrarian village to go to sleep, they are very vulnerable with each other—opening up about their pasts, loved ones, and emotions. Cullen perfectly sums up his racial subjugation when he says, “I’ve been mad all my natural life.” It defines his oppression. As a black man in a racist society, he has no choice but to “be nice,” even in the face of cruelty and injustice.

When the men attempt to infiltrate the food supply, the village awakens and threatens to lynch BOTH of them. Cullen spits in their faces, rowling up the mob. After spending the night tied against a pole, they are set free by an empathetic stranger. When they get far enough away, they get into another confrontation. This time when it turns physical, they don’t stop it, but a little boy and his gun do. The young, country child exemplifies what Cullen said about racism and hatred’s cyclical nature. Children breathe in the hate from their parents, their surroundings, and society, only to practice it as an adult and ensure their children breathe in the same hate as them. Joker wanted to get lost when they knocked the kid unconscious, but Cullen wouldn’t leave without making sure he was okay. When the boy awakens, he is terrified by Cullen and ironically runs to Joker for safety.

On Joker and Cullen’s request, the kid brings them back to his home where his mother is. The men finally break free of their shackles and, when they do, Joker adopts a defensive aloofness. It’s like he wants to erase all that Cullen taught him and return to the easier, blissful ignorance. He seduces the kid’s desperate mom who is quickly ready to give everything up for him. The woman offers Joker a way out, but one that excludes Cullen. The men decide to separate and Cullen searches for the train to freedom alone. Joker is about to leave with the woman when she tells him that Cullen won’t ever get to the train because she gave him disingenuous directions. This snaps Joker back into reality. He can’t just forget.

As much as he resisted, he undeniably cares for Cullen. He has to go back for Noah, but the kid shoots him in the shoulder and it slows him down. Against all odds, the men are reunited just in time to catch the train, but Joker is too weak—he can’t make it. Cullen stays with him, putting the same white man he had such enmity for three days ago over his freedom. The film embodies MLK’s ideals of loving your enemy. It also supports the postwar period’s replacement of the Protestant Ethic, “the pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift, and competitive struggle,” with the Social Ethic, “a belief in the group as source of creativity…in ‘belongingness’ as the ultimate need for the individual” (Casper, 2000).

The Defiant Ones blends the male melodrama with the adventure and chase genres to achieve a distinctive dynamism and newness. Upon its reception, it was positively reviewed as a “candid presentment of racial conflict and resentment between Negroes and whites” that “rips right into the subject with clawing ferocity and flails it about with merciless fury until all the viciousness in conflict is spent.” Time has only further solidified The Defiant Ones as a classic for the ages.

Of the nine Academy Award nominations it received (included nods for both Poitier and Curtis), The Defiant Ones only took two home; Best Original Screenplay for Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith and Best Black-and-white Cinematography. At the time, writer Nedrick Young was blacklisted as a suspected communist and controversially won under the pseudonym, Nathan Douglas. Him and his writing partner both served in World War II and had to experience a forced intimacy with their squadron similar to that of Cullen and Joker. By 1958, color had already been introduced to film, so choosing to film in black and white was an intentional one. For a film about the strife between black and white, it seems obvious why this choice was made.

George E. Pitts claimed that, for his work in the film, “the first legitimate Negro claimant to the Academy Award acting honors has finally arrived” (Pitts, 1958). Not necessarily to say that black actors were unworthy of praise up until this point, but that none were in roles as worthy as Noah Cullen. Eighteen years after McDaniel’s Oscar Win (with no wins or nominations for non-whites in between), Poitier’s nomination was not for an enslaved Mammy character, but for Noah Cullen, a fully formed, dimensional, escaped convict who can only achieve his personal liberation by collaborating with the discriminatory white man he is chained to. Liberal thought had, no doubt, bled more and more into the Hollywood system, but it hadn’t yet into the rest of America. Amidst its critical acclaim, Alabama actually banned The Defiant Ones from screening at theaters after residents protested about the movie being “Anti-southern” and “Pro-integration” (Afro-American, 1959). America didn’t altogether support the movie’s message because some didn’t believe a black man should share top billing with a white man. As a ceremony, the Oscars avoids political controversy unless it’s in the form of a white comedian host’s colorful remarks, or for shutting out non-white men from several categories. As such, rewarding The Defiant Ones for best picture or for Poitier’s nuanced performance would cross the threshold into too controversial.

The issue specifically with the Academy Awards is that it’s a self-aggrandizing, political event within the Hollywood system that rewards its own. As of 2017, the Academy is 94% white and 77% male (Gay, 2016). In 1958, the makeup of this elite group was decidedly even less diverse. On top of that, the majority of filmmakers were white men. The stories that made it to the big screen were selected by a social elite to be made by the social elite which means that they mainly focused on stories surrounding characters of this elite class.

In 1959, Hollywood wasn’t ready to reward the work of a black man over that of the white man. Five years later, Hollywood didn’t exactly change its tune, but Poitier did earn his Best Actor Oscar over the likes of Paul Newman, Albert Finney, Rex Harrison, and Richard Harris. By winning for Lillies of the Field, however, he wasn’t winning as a black man, so much as he was for a male savior.

After his first nomination, Poitier was catapulted into stardom. He starred on Broadway and in 6 other movies in the time span. Noah Cullen proved that, in some sense, the public could accept an intelligent black man with wit, profundity, and potential beyond servitude. Poitier’s subsequent roles remained true to his beloved nature. He always played smart, well-spoken men with an acute sense of logic and reason. He, for the most part, played against the stereotype of being an aggressive, lazy, greedy, drug-doing black man because he, himself was none of those things. He came from nothing and had to forge his own way forward in a country that says his pigmentation makes him less than. His rise to fame is the American dream and that’s what made him acceptable more than anything else. He inspired hope.

By 1963, with Lillies of the Field’s release, Poitier was a prolific and respected actor. Poitier plays Homer Smith in the Ralph Nelson directed comedy. The story begins with Smith, a traveling handyman, on a westward exhibition. His peaceful and unbothered drive is interrupted when his car overheats. Homer pulls over at a nearby farm to cool his car off when he meets its occupants—5 Christian nuns who immigrated to America from Germany. Mother Maria, the leader of the crew with a very limited command of the English language, believes Homer is the answer to their prayers. In exchange for a meal and water for the car, Homer agrees to patching the sisters’ roof.

Using his own tools, the roof is fixed by nightfall. Tired after the day’s work, he spends the evening at the farm. The next couple of days, Homer is coerced into doing several chores around the farm. Each time he sits down for meals with the women, he helps them with their English. On Sunday, the women have Homer drive them into town for their “church” service. Homer excuses himself from the service, citing that he is a Baptist, and heads to the local tavern. There, he eats a real meal and gets the scoop on the women he’s been staying with. Apparently, the poor women were left the farm in a state of disarray, with no real way to reap its benefits or repair it. On top of that, they don’t speak English. The barkeep warns Homer to keep away from the women.

After the service, the women introduce Homer to their pastor. The small Christian community in this part of rural Arizona doesn’t have a real church to say their prayers. Mother Maria dreams of changing that. She asks Homer to build them the church but, fed up with his lack of compensation and weary of the barkeep’s words, Homer drives away from the farm, leaving the women to stir in their squalor.

Something brings him back to the farm and, by himself, he begins work on the church. His magnanimity inspires the surrounding Latino community to contribute physical labor and a white man to donate materials. Even though most of the workers making the church aren’t Christian, they recognize the project as bigger than religion. It’s a project for human goodness.

However, the project threatens to fall apart when Homer steps away from it, tired of Mother Maria’s ungrateful bitterness. In his absence, Mother Maria tries to take over leadership, but cannot command the group’s attention or respect. While watching her fail, Homer takes pity on Mother Maria and decides to reclaim his reigns of authority. After providing the group with concise directions and some inspiration, the workers cheer for their boss. Homer, a black man, is the most powerful man in this film’s perceived universe. In the sisters’ eyes, he’s literally divine. Homer bosses around the Latino men and forces the immigrant women into the kitchen, establishing the black man’s superiority to these marginalized groups.

Ultimately, Homer and his worker-bees complete the Church’s construction. With the cement still wet, Homer climbs to a place only he can reach to inscribe his name on the cross. The representation of several oppressed, non-white groups, with little interference from the white man, works in a similar way to the Mammy archetype. Homer’s identity as a natural-born American reigns superior over the Spanish-speaking, lighter-skinned Latino man and the white, German women post-World War II in terms of power while also reinforcing the groups’ mutual contentment in subjugation. Though they don’t have power in the white man’s world, in some unchartered pockets of America, the disenfranchised can roam free and come together as one happy community.

The critical reception of Lilies of the Field was quite different from that received by The Defiant Ones. James Powers’ 1963 Hollywood Reporter review of the film determines its relative absence of racism. Instead, he defines the film as a cooperation between “disparate religious, racial, and national elements.” Though it was immediately praised as an uplifting and deserving of “all its popularity and whatever artistic success it is granted,” there was a notable dearth in examinatory discussions of race in the critical responses (Powers, 1963).

Lilies was defined as a Christian film, not as a topical one and made much less of a societal splash than The Defiant Ones. It was a comedy that laughed in the face unamerican difference, misunderstanding, and misuse of the language. It didn’t take itself too seriously, so it wasn’t considered a part of a serious discussion. The saccharine sentimentality and unobtrusiveness made it the perfect film to reward at the Academy Awards.

Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field differed tremendously from Noah Cullen. Like Poitier himself, Smith was a war veteran and noble figure. At the time, Hollywood thought Homer Smith’s positive representation of a black man worked in a progressive attack against stereotypes. However, in setting Homer apart from any and every stereotype of the black male, the film effectively erased the oppressed identity from existence. Homer Smith was deracialized as opposed to Noah Cullen who was hyper-racialized. Where one character was defined by blackness, the other was defined instead by his heroic masculinity—distancing him from his race.

Modern times considers The Defiant Ones a classic film while Lilies of the Field languishes in relative obscurity. Even though The Defiant Ones has gotten some modern critique in simplifying racism as a problem that can be solved by “a little effort at a common role,” Lilies of the Field is excluded from the discussion entirely, receiving very little regard from film scholars at all (Hatch, 2008). The latter film (Lilies of the Field) is survived only by the historical importance of its association with Poitier’s Oscar; it is not seen as a deserving source of any considerable intellectual reading because its lack of topicality upon its inception renders it even more antiquated and irrelevant to the following decades and periods of film.

Poitier’s Academy Award win for Lilies of the Field set the institution’s tone for decades to come. While the significance of a black man winning this historically white award should not be reduced, it is important to understand how it serves a political narrative to keep power within the white patriarchy by promoting neo-liberalism over authentic, topical storytelling.

Works Cited:

  • Thompson, Bosley Crowtherhoward. “Screen: A Forceful Social Drama; ' The Defiant Ones' Has Debut at Victoria.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 1958,

  • Pitts, George E. "Sidney Poitier for '58 Academy Award." Pittsburgh Courier (1955-1966) Sep 27 1958, City Edition ed.: 19. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • Hatch, Robert. “The Defiant Ones.” The Nation, 29 June 2015,

  • Chow, Andrew R. “Green Book Continues the Oscars' Struggle with Race.” Time, Time, 25 Feb. 2019,

  • Pilgrim, David. “The Mammy Caricature.” The Mammy Caricature - Anti-Black Imagery - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University, Ferris State University, Oct. 2000,

  • Snow, Shane. “The Oscars And Race: What Data Tells Us Is Really Going On.” Medium, Medium, 9 Nov. 2019,

  • Sidney Poitier | About Sidney Poitier | American Masters | PBS.

  • “Defiant Ones, The (1958): Stanley Kramer's Best Film, Starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.” Emanuel Levy,

  • “91% White. 76% Male. Changing Who Votes on the Oscars Won't Be Easy.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times,

  • DOC YOUNG, ,A.S. "CAN SIDNEY POTTIER WIN AN OSCAR?" Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), Feb 26 1959, p. 3. ProQuest. Web. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • A S DOC YOUNG Special To,The Defender. "How Negroes could Win Academy Awards, Too." Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973), Apr 16 1963, p. 9. ProQuest. Web. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • Adams, Marjory. "Academy Award show Lacked Spirit--New Records: Oscar Festivities were Tasteful, Dull and without Upset." Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960) Apr 12 1959: 1. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • By, THOMAS M. "A 'Defiant One' Becomes a Star: Out of Poverty, Sidney Poitier Rose to Top Rank in Hollywood. Now He Challenges Broadway." New York Times (1923-Current file) Jan 25 1959: 1. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • "'Defiant Ones' may Win Poitier Academy Award." Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001) Feb 28 1959: 1. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • "Alabama Bans 'Defiant Ones'." Afro-American (1893-1988) May 02 1959: 2. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • Burrus, Effie. "Sidney Poitier Captures an Oscar." Call and Post (1962-1982) Apr 18 1964, City edition ed.: 2. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

  • DAL. "Black is Beautiful!" Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001) Mar 29 1969: 8. ProQuest. 7 Nov. 2019 .

Follow Me!
  • Twitter - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
Recent Posts