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Friday, April 12, 2024

April 12, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Lillies of the Field

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On what was unquestionably historic about Poitier’s Oscar, what wasn’t quite, and what’s importantly outside of that framing.

I started this week’s series by highlighting the work of my favorite FilmStudier, Vaughn Joy, so it’s only appropriate that I end the series by doing the same: for a delightful and engaging but also thoroughly thoughtful and analytical take on the history of the Academy Awards, including questions of diversity and representation therein, I highly recommend this episode of Liam Heffernan’s America: A History Podcast featuring Vaughn. As they get into at length, the Oscars have been frustratingly bad when it comes to racial/ethnic representation—which also means that we have to recognize the genuine (if frustratingly slow and haphazard) significance of historical steps in that direction. Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black man to win an Academy Award, and the first Black performer to win in the Best Actor or Actress categories, in 1964 for his performance in Lillies of the Field (1963) was such a historic step; the fact that it was long overdue, and the not-unrelated fact that it would be nearly 40 years before another such Best Actor or Actress win (2001, when both Halle Berry and Denzel Washington took home Oscars in those categories), are important contexts but do not diminish Poitier’s achievement in the slightest.

I can’t lie, though—it’s also a bit frustrating, and at least somewhat telling, that it was Lillies for which Poitier won his one Oscar. Don’t get me wrong, Poitier is great as always in Lillies, playing itinerant laborer Homer Smith who finds himself trapped in a convent doing the Lord’s work (or rather the nuns’ work, but in a pointed running joke the head nun Mother Maria [Shirley Booth] keeps thanking the Lord instead of him). And I’m not going to suggest that his character is anywhere near as limited nor stereotyped as the one for which the only prior African American Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel, took home her trophy. But nonetheless, of the couple dozen films that Poitier starred in across the 1950s and 60s (as I discussed in yesterday’s post), Homer is to my mind one of the least nuanced or interesting characters, a relatively straightforward comic role, one that uses the character more to make symbolic religious points than to offer the kinds of emotional and human truths that were at the heart of Poitier’s consistently, complicatedly compelling performances. And I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that this one, rather than all those others, was the role which won him the Oscar.

On the other hand, the Academy Awards are of course far from the only way to measure either a performance or a film’s significance. On the first note, Sidney Poitier gave many of the best film performances of the 1950s and 60s (and over the next few decades after), whatever happened in awards season. And on the second, I do think there’s at least one really important element of Lillies of the Field—that it features a Black man living in a convent with a group of largely white nuns for months, and the situation is presented as both humorous and symbolically resonant but never, not even for a second, as fraught. Considering that one of the first historic American films featured the racist myth of Black rapists as a central plot element, and that none other than the film which won Hattie McDaniel her Oscar used that same myth as a driving force in the plot of its second half as well, it’s not at all insignificant to note the absence of even the slightest intimation of those racist narratives in Lillies of the Field. That doesn’t make this one of Poitier’s most important or interesting performances, but it does make it yet another way he and his films profoundly affected Americana culture and society.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 11, 2024

April 11, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Two 1967 Classics

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On standout speeches and sweet sendoffs in Poitier’s pair of 1967 releases.

By 1967 Sidney Poitier had starred in 24 films, including the 1963 release that won him the Academy Award 60 years ago this week (and on which I’ll focus in tomorrow’s post); in early 1967 he would star in another, the English educational drama To Sir, with Love. Which is to say, he was by this time already very well-established, if not indeed America’s most beloved screen actor. But having said all of that, I would still make the case that it was his second and third 1967 releases which hold up the best among all of Poitier’s films, and which not coincidentally happen to comprise (at the time and ever since) two of the most powerful depictions of race in America ever put on the silver screen: the police procedural In the Heat of the Night, which co-starred Rod Steiger and debuted in August 1967; and the domestic melodrama (with plenty of comic moments) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, which co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his final performance, as he passed away in June) and debuted in December 1967.

While Poitier’s character is far more central to Heat than to Guess (where for much of the film he takes an understandable backseat to the powerhouse couple of Hepburn and Tracy), both films offer him the chance to deliver standout, stirring speeches about race in America (among other topics). In Heat those speeches tend to be brief, to the point, and righteously enraged, as in the film’s two most famous moments: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” and the slap heard ‘round the world. In Guess Poitier’s most extended speech and scene is far more slow-building, emotionally nuanced, and multilayered: a frustrated yet loving conversation with his father (the great character actor Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) about their respective generations and perspectives. But what all these speeches and scenes share is a profound degree of emotional truth, the authentic humanity that Poitier brought to every performance and that makes both of these characters far more than just statements about race or civil rights (although they are both that as well).

Although full of more fraught and painful moments, both of these films end on sweet notes, and interestingly ones that are given to Poitier’s white male co-stars (while they are addressed to his characters). Spencer Tracy’s long final monologue in Guess is justifiably famous, not least because it is clearly addressed to his actual wife Hepburn (hence her very real tears throughout) as well as to the characters by Poitier and his fiancĂ© (Tracy’s character’s daughter). Rob Steiger’s final line in Heat is as brief and to the point as Poitier’s explosions earlier in the film, but it is no less moving than Tracy’s monologue (and just as important to the film’s arc and themes), and it elicits one of Poitier’s most beautiful smiles in all his film performances. And while both of these endings are performed by other actors, I would argue that both moments have been created largely (if not, in Heat at least, entirely) by the presence and influence of Poitier’s characters, and specifically by that combination of emotional humanity and civic inspiration about which I wrote above.

Last Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

April 10, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: The Defiant Ones

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On two different genres through which to contextualize The Defiant Ones (1958).

First things first: I have to take this post’s opening paragraph to complement Sidney Poitier’s range as an actor. Just think about the characters he played in the three 1950s movies I’ve highlighted so far in this series: a brilliant doctor in No Way Out (1950); a rebellious high school student in The Blackboard Jungle (1955); and an angry convict in The Defiant Ones (1958). Over those same years he also played a South African preacher in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), a World War II officer in Red Ball Express (1952), a Harlem Globetrotter in Go, Man, Go! (1954), and a roughneck stevedore in Edge of the City (1957), among many other performances. Poitier became so known for his Civil Rights-related films that he’s often defined as an activist as much as an actor, and my focal points in this blog series might tend to reinforce that perspective; so I wanted to make sure to start this post by recognizing the true breadth and variety of roles that he played (and played equally pitch-perfectly), even at a young age (he was only 30 when he made Defiant Ones). Truly one of our all-time great actors.

The most straightforward way to contextualize’s Poitier’s 1958 film The Defiant Ones, and not at all an inaccurate lens, is to put it in conversation with other films about prisons and convicts, a genre with a long and multilayered history to be sure. One of the most famous such films, The Shawshank Redemption (1994), likewise features an evolving friendship between a pair of initially antagonistic Black and white prisoners, which could make for an interesting comparative lens. Others, like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), focus as Defiant Ones does on escaped convicts, its own subgenre within this genre. And others, like Cool Hand Luke (1967), dwell on the dictatorial and destructive power structures within this brutal miniature society, structures that are never far from recapturing Poitier’s Noah Cullen and Tony Curtis’ John “Joker” Jackson throughout their story. Amidst this longstanding and crowded genre, this particular prison film was influential enough that it’s been adapted and remade multiple times, including with female prisoners in 1973’s Black Mama White Mama (starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov).

There are lots of reasons why that might be the case, but I would argue that one is Defiant’s relationship to another genre with an even more longstanding history and perhaps even more overt audience appeal to boot: the buddy comedy roadtrip film. For the two decades prior to Defiant Ones’ release, one of the most successful film series was squarely located within that genre: Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road to movies (the 7th and final of which, The Road to Hong Kong [1962], came out after Defiant Ones). Like most of the films I can think of in this genre—including such famous 1980s classics as Midnight Run (1988) and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)—the Crosby/Hope films were played for laughs, while The Defiant Ones is far more serious in tone (featuring a near-lynching among many other striking such sequences). Yet whether more humorous or more harrowing, what the best of these films (a category in which I would not put the Crosby/Hope films, personally) have in common is an emphasis on their characters as the driving force, individually but even more so in relationship to one another. And on that level, I don’t know a better buddy roadtrip film than The Defiant Ones.

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

April 9, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: The Blackboard Jungle

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On two very similar characters, and one important distinction.

Five years after his debut performance as the lead of the film I highlighted yesterday, 1950’s No Way Out, Sidney Poitier took on a more supporting but still very significant role in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). Based on Evan Hunter’s semi-autobiographical 1954 novel, The Blackboard Jungle is the story of a young WWII veteran turned high school English teacher, Glenn Ford’s Richard Dadier, who seeks to get through to the troubled students at an urban, integrated trade school. While the story seems initially focused on Dadier and his adult relationships, including with his pregnant wife (played by Anne Francis) and two fellow teachers (Richard Kiley and Margaret Hayes), it is gradually dominated by Poitier’s star-making performance as Gregory Miller, a rebellious leader of the students and apparent adversary to Dadier’s authority. But when he recognizes Miller’s intelligence and talents (including as a musician) and treats him with respect, Dadier is able to make Miller an ally instead, and (having pledged not to quit as long as the other doesn’t either) together they help turn the classroom around.

If that teacher-student dynamic seems familiar to modern audiences unfamiliar with Blackboard Jungle, I’d argue a main reason might be that it closely parallels the evolving central relationship in another, more recent film set in an urban high school: between Los Angeles high school math teacher Jaime Escalante (Edward James Olmos) and troubled but talented student Angel Guzman (Lou Diamond Phillips) in Stand and Deliver (1988). Like Guzman in Stand and Deliver, Poitier’s Miller is at least loosely connected to a gang, which in Blackboard is led by class bully Artie West (Vic Morrow). But as that hyperlinked scene reflects for the relationship between Miller and West, in both of these stories the potential student leader is far less violent and far more open to the teacher’s positive influences than is the gang leader character. Indeed, just as Poitier’s Miller is revealed to have musical talents that could take him very far if he gets the chance to pursue them, Phillips’ Guzman turns out to be one of the best and smartest students in Escalanate’s class, scoring a perfect 5 on the AP Calculus exam.

So there are clear and compelling similarities between these two youthful characters and their roles in their respective films. But there’s also a significant difference, and it’s one that I’d argue reflects the films’ respective time periods and historical contexts: Blackboard’s two central characters are distinct in race/ethnicity (Ford’s Dadier is white, while of course Poitier’s Miller is African American), while Stand’s are both Mexican American. In a pivotal scene in Stand, Escalante is accused of helping his students cheat on the AP exam, and rightly sees the accusation as racist stereotyping of himself as well as his students, attitudes which also seem connected to 1970s-80s attacks on affirmative action. Blackboard, on the other hand, is quite specifically a story about integration in public education, one not coincidentally released just a year after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As we’ll see throughout this week’s series, Poitier was consistently part of such Civil Rights-era films and themes, and despite its familiar overall genre Blackboard Jungle can’t be separated from those contexts.

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Monday, April 8, 2024

April 8, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Vaughn Joy on No Way Out

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

Back in January, at the end of my series on Columbia Pictures’ 100th anniversary, I paid tribute to a current FilmStudier I really love: Vaughn Joy. I ended that list of (some of) Vaughn’s many impressive pieces and projects by highlighting one of her newest, her Review Roulette newsletter. Not too long after that, Vaughn focused on a Black History Month edition of her newsletter on Sidney Poitier’s film debut, No Way Out (1950). It’s one of my favorite entries in a newsletter that I’m always excited to see in my inbox, so in lieu of today’s post I’ll ask you to check out that hyperlinked piece of Vaughn’s, subscribe to Review Roulette, and come on back here tomorrow for the next PoitierStudying!

Next Poitier post tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 6, 2024

April 6-7, 2024: Emily Lauer on Comics Analysis & Editing as Public-Facing Scholarship

[This is Emily Lauer’s fourth Guest Post, making her the current leader in sharing her great ideas and writing here. Everybody else, time to step up your Guest Posting game!]

It’s always lovely to guest post for Ben’s American Studies community, and this time around, instead of reviewing some interesting American Culture Thing, I’m writing about one of my own activities in public-facing scholarship. 

 

I’ve been involved with the website WWAC for almost eight years now, and I currently hold the position of Comics Academe Editor - that is, I edit the posts that go up in the section of the site dedicated to academic writing about comics. This includes scholarly reviews of comics, reviews of comics scholarship, and academic analysis of comics for a general audience. All the editors are volunteers; this role is a labor of love, not a paying gig. 

 

The website WomenWriteAboutComics.com was started by Megan Purdy in 2012 in response to a specific claim by some ill-informed pundit who said, when asked why his site didn’t publish criticism written by women, that, “women don’t write about comics.” In the many years since then, the site has grown to encompass coverage of television and film and non-comics books in our Bookmarked section as well.

 

We won the Eisner Award for Best Comics Journalism three times in a row, in 2020, 2021, and 2022. 

 

We are archived by the US Library of Congress, where we are featured as an online source for research about women and comic books

 

After Megan stepped back from her roles as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, those roles have been filled by a number of dedicated people, currently Nola Pfau as Editor-in-Chief and Kate Tanski as Publisher. Under their leadership WWAC has “become an educational partner of the Oregon State University Creative Writing Internship program,” and they are pursuing “potential future partnerships with comics-related non-profit organizations” according to Kate. I am especially looking forward to their plan to change the site name to WeWriteAboutComics.com, to better reflect the range of marginalized genders among our varied contributors. In the meantime, we are going by our initials, WWAC, as much as possible. 

 

Personally, I got involved with WWAC in the summer of 2016 when I saw a call for people to join their copyediting team. I had a sabbatical coming up with a project writing about comics adaptations, and some experience in journalism and proofreading. It seemed like a good fit. After a time as a copyeditor, I also became a contributor; after a time as a contributor I was asked to take on editing duties for a section of the site called Pubwatches which offers roundups of comics publishers’ new releases and news on a monthly basis. 

 

After years as the Pubwatches Editor, we started winning Eisners. Was it largely due to my own personal efforts that the site became so celebrated? Reader, it was not. But it was definitely an exciting time to be involved. Due to some personal stuff with the pandemic and moving into a new apartment, I took a break from editing, but I missed it, and started my current role in the Comics Academe section of the site about a year ago. 

 

The Comics Academe section is a venue for scholarly writing with journalistic publishing practices. If you are a scholar who has something to say about a comic (or about Comics) but you don’t feel it needs to be in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, it is probably right for Comics Academe. Kate Tanski points out that, “essays published in Comics Academe are frequently used on syllabi, and have won the Gilbert Seldes Prize from the Comics Studies Society’s annual awards in 2021 and 2023 . Several current or past members of the Comics Studies Society have also served on the CSS board.” 

 

In my short time working on this section of the site, we’ve published a three-part series about archeology in comics, written by academic archeologists who happen to be interested in comics; we’ve published reviews of comics that take a scholarly approach to their analysis, and we’ve published a pedagogical discussion of using comics in the classroom—among other things. In the queue now we have a review of a scholarly collection of essays about comics, and a biographical look at an influential comics creator in India. 

 

It’s a vibrant and varied section, is what I’m saying. And we welcome pitches!

 

It’s really fun for me to receive these pitches and then get to read all these cool things scholars are doing with comics, often in a more casual tone than would be required for a scholarly journal, and a more casual timeline than would be required for most journalism. The best of both. 

 

Being a part of an organization like WWAC is rewarding for other reasons, too. Not only because the submissions are so interesting, but also partly because my involvement with WWAC is so different from my day-to-day experience of being a college professor. WWAC includes people all over the world, not all academics, with different career goals and strengths in writing. It enriches my scholarly practice, as all public-facing scholarship does, by broadening my perspective on what scholarship can be, and where it can go. 

[Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. Ideas for Guest Posts of your own? Share ‘em, please!]

Friday, April 5, 2024

April 5, 2024: Satire Studying: The Big Short and Vice

[If ever a year both needed and yet resisted a heavy dose of satire, it would be 2024. So for this year’s April Fool’s series I’ll share a humorous handful of SatireStudying posts—please add your thoughts on these and any other satirical texts you’d highlight for a knee-slapping yet pointed crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On the value and the limits of satire when it comes to contemporary, contested events.

One of the more interesting artistic transformations of the 21st century has been that of writer and director Adam McKay. McKay rose to prominence through his collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell (and others) on a series of extremely silly comedies: Anchorman (2004) and its sequel, Talladega Nights (2006), Step Brothers (2008), and The Other Guys (2010). If you haven’t had a chance to see any of those films, the most important thing to emphasize (and one you can gather from just about any clip from any of them) is that they are almost entirely, and very purposefully, non-thematic, overtly not interested in social or cultural issues and just trying to make audiences laugh as consistently and hard as possible. But in 2015, McKay wrote and directed The Big Short, a satirical dramedy based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name about the 2008 housing crisis and financial meltdown. And 2018 saw the release of a second, very similar McKay film, Vice, a satirical dramedy based on the life and political career (to date) of Dick Cheney (starring Christian Bale as Cheney, Amy Adams as his wife Liz, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, and many more actors).

These satirical yet serious takes on hot-button contemporary issues parallel in many ways one of the 21st century’s most popular cultural genres: the satirical news commentary and comedy program. Originated by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show (especially once Jon Stewart took over the hosting gig), this genre has become one of the most prolific in recent years, from Stephen Colbert and John Oliver to Samantha Bee and Hasan Minhaj (among others!). Even late-night talk show hosts have gotten in on the act in diverse but equally compelling ways. What unites all these satirical news programs is their desire to walk a fine line between making audiences laugh (not constantly, but at least consistently) and providing thought-provoking commentary on current events, and I would say McKay’s recent films are aiming for that same sweet spot. I haven’t had a chance to see Vice yet, but I did see The Big Short and it was most definitely seeking to provide both laughs and knowledge, often in the exact same sequences (as with the famous and controversial use of random beautiful actresses to talk about the fine points of housing policy and economics). As that hyperlinked sequence featuring Margot Robbie notes, knowing these seemingly boring details is pretty vital to understanding the last decade in American life, and the goal of using comedy and satire to convey such details links McKay’s recent films to these news programs.

Yet I have significantly more ambivalence about McKay’s films than I do about those programs, and I think it boils down to one factor: the use of talented, likable actors to create sympathy for figures who have contributed negatively and destructively to these recent histories. That was somewhat the case with The Big Short’s protagonists, mortgage brokers (played by highly likable actors such as Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale) who seemingly fought the system yet at the same time profited greatly by predicting and betting on the upcoming crash and crisis. And it’s very definitely the case with Vice—again, I haven’t had a chance to see it as of this writing, but part of the reason why is that I love watching Christian Bale in anything, and really don’t relish the thought of him playing Dick Cheney, to my mind one of the truly evil figures in the last century of American political and social life. Every historical figure is a flesh-and-blood human being, with various layers and sides, and so I suppose every one is also worth extended attention and even sympathy. But I don’t know that we need an entire film creating such a multi-layered portrait of Dick Motherfucking Cheney (that’s his full name, y’know), and I likewise am not at all sure that the lighter touch of comedy and satire are appropriate when it comes to depicting such a figure. I suppose there’s a place for such films, but they’re likely to remain non-favorites for this AmericanStudier (and for reviewers such as Slate’s Bilge Ebiri, it seems).

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

Ben

PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other satirical works you’d share?