Monday, July 8, 2013

Poitier: A Patch of Blue (1965)

Selina and Gordon sharing a moment of tenderness

Even today interracial couples get the curious eye from folk who need to keep their noses out of it. But in 1965, tensions could erupt at the drop of a hat if a white girl liked a black boy. Such is the story of A Patch of Blue except this time the white girl is blind and from the wrong side of the tracks, and the black boy is highly educated and on his way up the business ladder.  When Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier) meets blind Selina (pronounced Slina by her family) in the park, stringing beads for extra income, he is intrigued by her. On a whim, he purchases a pair of sunglasses to hide the gentle scarring around Selina’s eyes (he’s the first one to pronounce her name as SeLIna). And so begins the kindest relationship Selina has ever known.

Her mother, Rose Ann (Shelley Winters), is a brutish woman who works Selina to the bone, and whips her with a rag if she is late preparing supper or cleaning the laundry. Selina’s grandfather, called Ole Pa, is little better because, although he cares about Selina, he is a terrible drunk and, while not as mean as Rose Ann, he’s disgusting in his drunken state. It’s only natural that Selina would fall in love with Gordon, a man who not only shows her kindness, but teaches her how to be self-reliant, how to reach the pay phone near her house if she needs him, how to count steps across the intersection, what sounds are called, etc. And she does not realize he is black, at least not until the end, and even then, it doesn’t matter, and why should it?

If the movie were made today, I think Poitier’s character would have been the main character. As it is, Selina, played by innocent Elizabeth Hartman, is the lead, almost as if they were afraid to give Poitier too much screen time. I would have loved for the film to have been from his perspective because, even as it is, the audience senses his frustration with Selina’s situation. I would have liked to see him away from her in more scenes, considering, contemplating, see his home life, why he is torn about his emotions regarding Selina. There’s a little bit of this, but not enough. Still, they did the best they could with the era available to them, and the intimate kiss shared between Selina and Gordon is intensely sweet and ground-breaking.

A Patch of Blue is a hard movie to watch, but is listed in my top twenty movies of all time anyway. Selina is much abused and what’s more, she’s content in it. This is what makes the ending all the more poignant. The director, Guy Green, admits in the commentary that they left the ending deliberately ambiguous, but with a tinge of hope that everything was going to turn out all right. That is the most irritating aspect of classic film, those endings that aren’t really an ending, with everything neatly wrapped up with a bow. I love having no loose ends, but that’s not the way classic cinema rolls.

As for Poitier, this is one of his forgotten films, and I can’t figure out why. Sure, he’s not playing Mr. Tibbs, the character for which he is most remembered, but he masterfully tackles the role of Gordon Ralfe, taking an already likable character and making him transcend race. Gordon’s guilt over his feelings for Selina is touching and accurate for the era. What’s even more beautiful is the scene where she tells him she knows he’s black, and thinks he’s beautiful anyway, her hands on his cheeks, smiling up at him. And the look in his eyes, such tenderness, such love. Poitier is at his best in this film and even though he is not the lead, he is the leading man. He is the patch of blue in her life, the one color Selina can remember before acid stole her sight at the age of five.

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