The Defiant Ones (1958)
February 2, 2015 2:44 PM - Subscribe

Every time I watch an old Sidney Poitier movie it seems like it's trying to make some really serious statement about race--No Way Out, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night--I'd really like to read more and learn more about how Poitier felt about all of this, because I'm feeling right now as if he was the Designated Race Relations Standard Bearer for the late 1950s through the 1960s. It also struck me as how, in each of the movies, he was somewhat non-threatening*--in three roles he plays a professional (a doctor twice, and a detective), and even in The Defiant Ones, he's portrayed more as a gentle giant, considering he's in prison for assaulting someone with the intent to kill him. On the other hand, the plots of No Way Out or In the Heat of the Night are impossible unless he plays a professional, but imagine how Guess Who's Coming to Dinner would have been received if Poitier's character had been, say, a construction worker instead of a world-renowned physician.

In any case, aside from the obvious racial overtones in The Defiant Ones, its statement as a reaction to McCarthyism was interesting, too--not just in the linked passage above, but most notably in the Company Store sequence, where the duo avoided lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

I was first familiar with this film after seeing its 1980s remake on HBO as a kid, and don't think I could bring myself to watch it again after seeing the first-rate performances in the original.

*There's of course also something threatening at the time about the idea of a black man being a doctor or a detective, but I'd argue that portraying his characters as (mostly) well-educated, upwardly mobile men, they were somehow more palatable than had the characters had different backgrounds.
posted by MoonOrb at 11:25 AM on February 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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