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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,


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

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