“Since I couldn’t actuate the things that I wanted to do, the only weapon I had was to say no.” — Sidney Poitier

It’s Sidney Poitier’s birthday. Poitier was the first African-American to win a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Homer Smith, the drifter/handy-man in 1963’s Lilies of the Field (which also won Best Picture).

Poitier is a superstar in it, and I mean superstar in a very specific way. Poitier is a classic leading man, handsome and funny but also somewhat mysterious, all of which create natural charisma. Homer is given no backstory. He emerges from nowhere. He is like Hud (which came out the same year) and Hondo and Shane and other drifters, coming out of the wilderness like something out of Homer’s Odyssey. Hm. HOMER. Get it?

Homer Smith gets a job, almost by accident. In his wandering, he comes across a poverty-struck convent in the middle of the desert. The German nuns clustered there speak almost no English, struggle to make anything grow in their garden, and their chapel is in ruins. Homer Smith shows up looking for water, and through the persuasion of Mother Maria (Lilia Skala, nominated for Best Supporting) he stays to do some work around the place.

The going is tough. The nuns cannot pronounce his name and call him repeatedly “Homer Schmidt.” They want him to build a chapel. There aren’t enough bricks and the nuns have no money. He agrees. They provide makeshift compensations: He teaches them English. They feed him. But they don’t feed him much: the look on his face when he sees his breakfast – one boiled egg – is hilarious. Even though Homer insists he is a Baptist, they bring him to Catholic church. Because of the ruined chapel, they hold mass outside. (I love the priest wearing sunglasses during mass.)

Homer Smith keeps trying to leave. But somehow he just can’t. Something holds him there. He builds the chapel for the nuns. He feels proud ownership over his work. He has dreamt of being an engineer, he has dreamt of the bridges and buildings he will create. Life is not set up for dreamers like Homer Smith. He wanders the desert, perhaps because the world has not welcomed him, has not allowed him to pursue his dreams.

The chapel Homer builds is beautiful. A lily of the field blooming in the desert.

After he attaches the cross, high on top of the steeple, he stands there, allowing himself a brief moment of pride.

And then … he sticks his finger in the still-wet clay, and writes his name. He chooses a spot at the very top where no one can see it. But God can see it. It is there.

lilies

A powerful and personal act, Homer Smith’s “John Hancock”: This. This here. Me. I. I am here. I did this.

A small movie, about a small world, with strict boundaries: Poitier brought to it a sense of vastness, filling the inchoate atmosphere with dreams, longings, and a desire to be known, to be specific, to be counted. But he did so with a quiet sense of his own power, power dormant within him but so present we can feel it. It emanates off the screen.

That’s what I mean by a superstar. Paul Newman. Brad Pitt. Not everyone has it. Not everyone can just stand there and emanate the dreams and longings of everyone sitting out there in the dark.

What Poitier meant as an actor and public figure is an important part of the story. He changed the world. At times he felt it to be a heavy burden.

So I had to be careful. I recognized the responsibility that, whether I liked it or not, I had to accept whatever the obligation was. That was to behave in a manner, to carry myself in such a professional way, as if there ever is a reflection, it’s a positive one.

But, like Homer Smith, Sidney Poitier wrote his name in the wet clay, the wet clay of our culture. Unlike Homer Smith, he did it in plain view, where everyone could see it.

Here. I. I did this. I.

 
 
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2 Responses to “Since I couldn’t actuate the things that I wanted to do, the only weapon I had was to say no.” — Sidney Poitier

  1. To honor Sidney Poitier we watched “The Lilies of the Field” last night. What an odd movie. I don’t think I knew, or at least I didn’t remember, that the nuns were East German refugees, which gives the whole thing a strange spin- they escaped godless Communism and that alone seems to reinforce their faith. More than that, though, Who is Homer Smith? Where did he come from? Does he actually experience any sort of spiritual growth or transformation? From the outset he is so easily persuaded to stay on that we have to question whether he has changed at all by the movie’s end. On the other hand, everyone around him changes, from the racist contractor to the godless bartender.
    None of that really matters, of course. What matters is Poitier, who is effortlessly charismatic.

    • sheila says:

      // Does he actually experience any sort of spiritual growth or transformation? From the outset he is so easily persuaded to stay on that we have to question whether he has changed at all by the movie’s end. //

      The reason why he stays – the fact that it’s not stated outright or made explicit – is part of the mystery of the whole thing and – in my opinion – is why him writing his name in the wet clay is so moving. Maybe that’s why. He created something that was his, that confirmed his dreams for himself, an actual thing out there in the real world made solely by him.

      But that’s just me guessing.

      He definitely made better movies – but this one is a pure example of his charisma, since his character is so loosely drawn. Poitier had to just BE. and that’s not an easy thing – if you’re not charismatic!

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