Throughout this week, we’ve been celebrating the 90th birthday of Sidney Poitier (February 20), recalling past work (especially lesser known films) and other clickables, on this blog and on social media (see pieces on “Porgy & Bess,” “The Slender Thread,” some Did You Know trivia, and a short film about Poitier’s brush with the Hollywood Blacklist).
I admit that I have a certain fondness for Sidney Poitier’s 1965 MGM film “A Patch of Blue.” One can look at the film today with our jaded, cynical eyes, and say it’s corny, predictable and woefully naïve. But there’s a real sincerity at the center of the film; and even though you can look at it as an early example of the “Magical Negro” film, I think it does go beyond that simple description in a few ways.
And by “Magical Negro” I am referring, of course, to that enduring, self-sacrificing black movie character, who serves only to the needs, desires and evolution of the main white character, with no benefit of his/her own.
The film, which was directed by former British cinematographer turned director Guy Green, was originally released on Warner Home Video over a decade ago, but was out of print for several years. However, 2 years ago, it was re-released on Warner’s on-demand DVD specialty video label, Warner Archive.
The film’s basic plot is a relatively simple one, in which Poitier plays Gordon Ralfe who, while walking through the park on a lunch break, comes across a young, white, blind girl making jewelry – Selina D’Arcey (played by Elizabeth Hartman). Intrigued by her, they eventually develop a deep friendship in which Ralfe finds out that Selina is going through hell living with her highly dysfunctional family, made up of a cruel, abusive mother (Shelley Winters – who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress the following year, for her role in the film), and a weak, drunken sot of a grandfather. He also finds out that she is basically uneducated and totally naïve about the world.
The title of the film comes from her description of the sky, which is the last thing she remembers before she lost her sight as a little girl in an accident caused by her mother.
So Ralfe takes it upon himself to teach Selina basic living skills and to become more self-sufficient, as their relationship turns into a romance, before she’s sent off to a school for the blind, at the end.
As I previously said, the film may sound like your typical “Magic Negro” movie (one can almost imagine Will Smith playing the role today in a remake), but there are some significant differences which I think make the film stand out.
First of all, the typical “Magical Negro” has some sort of mysterious or near supernatural power, like Michael Clarke Duncan’s simple-minded, Christ-like John Coffey in “The Green Mile,” or Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” who literally materializes out of the darkness, like some sort of apparition, only to return into the darkness at the end of the film.
Poitier’s Ralfe, however, is just an ordinary working stiff, stuck in the day-to-day grind and, unlike other “Magical Negroes” who have no back-story or interior life, we do get some scenes of Ralfe’s private life with friends, as well as his struggles in the face of the blunt racism of the time, which makes him somewhat cautious at first, in dealing with Selina.
Then, of course, there are the matters of love and sex. “Magical Negroes” are always sexually neutered – practically asexual – so as not to offend the “delicate sensibilities” of white audiences. But in “Blue,” Selina eventually falls head over heels in love with Ralfe, as he does with her. But Ralfe intentionally keeps his distance, knowing that getting involved with a white woman, let alone a blind one, is going to lead to all sorts of problems. However, the look in his eyes say something else altogether.
Ralfe is always very aware of his blackness and the ongoing thorny issue of race, which is the main reason why he avoids telling her that he is black. And, remember, we’re talking the mid-1960’s. In fact, some scenes in the film between Ralfe and Selina – including a kiss between them – were, not surprisingly, cut in some Southern states where the film was released.
Race is the other underlining tension in the film that other “Magical Negro” movies typically avoid. In fact, it’s never even brought up at all in those kinds of films, creating a fantastical, so called “post-racial” environment. However, the relationship between Ralfe and Selina gets especially sticky when her mother discovers their relationship, and blows a gasket, revealing her racist, vile views, confirming Ralfe’s apprehensions. However, the news that Ralfe is black makes Selina happy and only intensifies her love for him.
In the end, Ralfe is torn between seeing Selina go away to a blind school (because of his feelings for her), and asking her to stay; but he knows her leaving is the right thing to do, because any relationship with her, is very likely doomed to fail, because of society’s rules – at that time.
The film was one of Poitier’s career hits during the period, and solidified his standing as one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. Tragically, the same cannot be said for his co-star Hartmann. Though she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the film, she spent the next decade or so, acting mainly in supporting roles in a few films, and the occasional TV show, due to her life long struggle with severe depression.
Eventually, she retired from acting for good in the early 80’s, and moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked in a museum, while getting treatment for her mental condition. However, a divorce and other problems, made life too much to bear, and she committed suicide by jumping out of a window in 1987.
“A Patch of Blue” is far from perfect, though it is a perfect example of liberal Hollywood filmmaking of the 1960’s. But it’s sincere and means well; and overall, it’s a more complex and honest film than what you may expect.
Look for it on various home video formats.
Check out the trailer below: