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Not Prince Hamlet

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

The Defiant Ones Revisited

Monday, October 17, 2005

I'm reading James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work, a sustained personal essay about the movies that have most influenced Baldwin, the ones that he recognizes to have been both formative and reflective of the racial attitudes and realities in America.

The Defiant Ones, the Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis film I watched a few weeks ago, receives significant comment in the book. It is comment that I find troubling, troubling because it exposes the naivete (if not something worse) at work in my reading of the film, a reading which Baldwin would say is the only one that a white guy could come up with.

I praised the central tenet of the film, that the fates of Black and White Americans are as tied together realistically as they are metaphorically between the two characters. But do I really believe that to be true? Does my life reflect that? Has it been conditioned by that? Most definitely not. Which opens me up to the scathing observation of Baldwin about the film, which is that, rather than existing to make the claim that blacks and whites in America are somehow bound to one another, it simply exists to soothe the white conscience, to assure hand-wringing white people that they aren't hated by their black neighbors. Because, of course, Poitier jumps the train when Curtis can't make it; he forfeits the only shot at freedom he'll ever have in order to end up arrested, sitting in a track-side ditch singing "Sewing Maching" with his white buddy in his arms.

It would never occur to the white viewer that black audiences--as Baldwin attests they did--shouted during the film's climactic scene, "What are you doing? Get back on that train, you fool!" White audiences would shout no such thing, but would sigh a sigh of relief (as I did) that the black protagonist's character had not sunk so low as the white one's--by white standards.

I need to watch the movie again; and I need to hear other people's take on it.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 10:26 AM


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