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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

In Pursuit of Poitier, Part I

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

While driving to Denver a few weeks ago, I listened to Sidney Poitier's autobiography on tape. I had seen it at the library a couple of days before and grabbed, thinking only of how delicious it would be to spend eight hours listening to that distinctive voice, richly textured and deliberately paced as it is (in contrast to the Kansas landscape).

Well, as a result of that hearing, my Netflix queue is now full of Poitier movies. The goal is to go through the highlights of his career chronologically. The first installment was "Blackboard Jungle," released in 1955, and filmed during the year that school segregation was made illegal. A modern viewer will no doubt expect this 50-year-old depiction of juvenile delinquincy to pale in comparison with the contemporary alternative; and the modern viewer would, in one sense, be right in so expecting. But she would also be surprised at just how little has changed. The biggest difficulty faced by the virtuous teacher (played by Glenn Ford) is the complete disregard his students have for any kind of "authority" or order. They taunt him, they threaten him, and he responds by lashing out at the institution that was supposed to train him to do this job: "I wasn't prepared for this!" It's an indictment of the (largely white) halls of America's institutions of higher learning, liberal and well-intentioned, but completely out of touch with what's going on "in the trenches."

Of course, if "Blackboard Jungle" were to come out today, the inner-city hoodlums would certainly not represent the racial diversity that they did in 1955. And I think we have come to realize the emptiness of the image of the heroic white educator risking life, limb, and career in the inner city school (hat tip: Jim Belushi and Michelle Pfeifer). Because, while those individuals display an unthinkable sense of purpose and mission, they also have had to face the systemic institutional failures that have produced the problems they face in the classroom, failures that we are all, to some degree, implicated in.

Considering David Brooks' recent editorial about the broadening gap in America between those who have educational opportunities and those who don't, "Blackboard Jungle" is worth watching. And if for nothing else, the movie features a really good early perfomance by Poitier, complete with still-broken English and akward physical scenes.

Next up: "The Defiant Ones."

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