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Not Prince Hamlet

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

In Pursuit of Poitier, Part II

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Man, this one's good. It oughta be, considering both Poitier and Curtis were nominated for Oscars for their performances. Coming three years after "Blackboard Jungle," "The Defiant Ones" has a simple and compelling premise. Two jailbirds, one white and one black, escape when their convoy overturns (the film's first scene is the classic "dark and stormy night"; who can drive a truck full of inmates in such conditions?). The catch, though, is this: the two fugitives are chained together by the wrists.

The statement that the premise makes is too obvious to merit any elaboration. But, obvious as it is, it's troublesome--in a good way. Because, if we haven't noticed, things haven't gotten much better between white and black Americans in the last 50 years. This movie cries out for a contemporary remake.

What's so good about "The Defiant Ones" is that it's not a bleeding-heart exhortation to anything so shallow as "unity" or "understanding"; it's a stark stament of a simple fact: the fates of white Americans are inseperably tied to those of Black Americans, and vice versa. For better and for worse (the best bit of dialogue in the movie comes when Curtis' character protests, "I aint married to you," to which Poitier's character responds: "you are married to me, and [indicating the chain] this is the ring!"). Curtis' character has it better off when the bullets start to fly, and he knows it. The script reveals a character who is weak and not unwilling to sell out his counterpart to save his own skin. But the character changes, as does Poitier's.

The thing about this movie is that it understands the dynamic complexity and simplicity of its' central problem. And in that sense it's timeless. It isn't simply that blacks and whites in America (and this is a particularly American problem, and thus a particularly American movie) have differences and need to learn to understand each other. It's that whites in this country, by an overwhelming majority, experience opportunity at a much, much higher rate than our black neighbors. It's systemic, and no amount of liberal hand-wringing or conservative "values" will change that.

What will change it? Far be it from me to say. But maybe some answers would be forthcoming if people like myself (and those who read this blog) really believed in the implications of "The Defaint One's" central claim.

As to Poitier's performance. Awesome. It's remarkable what has happened to his cadence and movement (it's a very physical movie) in only three years' time. Best of all, though, is what has always been his greatest asset: his eyes. Probing, condemning, forgiving. Sidney Poitier does more with his eyes than most actors can do with their whole bodies, including their mouths.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:28 PM


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