Sidney Poitier occupies a very unique place in Hollywood history. As one of the few black actors to gain prestige during the Golden Era, he’s a heroic figure. He paved the way for so many talented men and women who came after him. And that’s noteworthy because neither his career nor his life were sacrificed for it. Look at Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge; two of the foremost symbols of black glamour who weren’t allowed to do much. Both were hindered by racism and Dorothy by an untimely death. James Edwards was another pioneer who fought for roles and was often relegated to inconsequential ones, with rare exception.
It’s gratitude I feel when I watch Sidney Poitier onscreen. I don’t agree with criticisms surrounding his image and body of work. He has portrayed varied roles throughout his career, none that veer into degrading stereotypes. He has shown the rich complexity of black men. He has been a hero, something that was denied to his contemporaries and those that came before.
The Defiant Ones is a film I’ve been reluctant to watch. A racist white man and a black man escape a prison truck and go on the run, handcuffed to each other. I expected a film that would excuse the white man’s attitude in favor of indicting them both. “Can’t fight hate with hate” type of preaching. Thankfully, that is not the case here.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones also stars Tony Curtis as the white convict, John Jackson, aka Joker. He and Noah Cullen (Poitier) escape when the truck carrying themselves and other prisoners tips over on the road. A manhunt is soon underway, yet it’s expected that the two will kill each other before long.
John and Noah hate each other, which is only exacerbated by John’s frequent use of the N word. They’re both on the run from the law, yet John still believes that he’s superior. Doesn’t matter if a man is poor, dumb, or an occupant on the lowest rung of the social ladder; if he’s white, he’s inherently better than a black man. John has bought into this belief wholeheartedly. He believes the world owes him something, that he deserves the money and fancy cars and beautiful women.
Noah has a family, a wife and son, the latter whom he hasn’t seen in years. He reflects on this, that his son probably doesn’t remember him. John dismisses him. Noah also reveals that his wife always wanted him to be cautious, so he could avoid trouble. It’s the kind of caution black men are programmed with from birth. Don’t talk back, don’t retaliate, do nothing that will give them an excuse to kill you.
The more time they are chained together, the more their animosity grows. They never become friends, but something like friendship does spring up between them.
The two find refuge with a mother and her son. When they first meet the young boy, he’s frightened of Noah and assumes that he’s John’s prisoner. His mother looks down on Noah of course, and is attracted to John. The two share a passionate kiss and she promises to go away with him, starting her life over. When John and Noah are freed from their handcuffs, they go their separate ways. But the woman gives Noah a false escape route, hoping that he won’t spoil her plans with John; hoping he’ll be killed.
Disgusted, John leaves without her, despite her protests and pleading. Much as we’d like for him and Noah to elude capture, it just isn’t meant to be. They’ll be caught. They’re equals.
Tony Curtis was a fine dramatic actor (see also 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success) but I think he’s best remembered for his comedies. Sidney Poitier gives his usual best, making Noah tough and gritty with a touch of humor and vulnerability as well. The two actors play off each other wonderfully. This is a story of hate and their chemistry is palpable.
Tune in to Sidney Poitier day and check out the other posts in the Summer Under the Stars blogathon.