Lilies of the Field
Sidney Poitier builds a chapel and makes history.
Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier, is not about black history. It is a part
of black history. His performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar, the first awarded to an
Poitier plays Homer, an itenerant handyman. As he passes through New Mexico,
he stops for water at a mission run by German nuns. The Mother Superior (Lilia Skala)
demands he fix the mission roof. Misunderstanding her as trying to hire him,
he does the work. The next morning she refuses to pay him but says God
has sent him to build their chapel.
Through a comedy of errors and misunderstandings he keeps working just one more
day. In between days of work, evening English lessons, cultural clashes and further misunderstandings
continue the comedy.
The movie deals very subtley with racism, so subtley that today's viewers can miss
the issue. As others have noted elsewhere, it carries
none of the anger that might be expected in a 1960's film about racial interaction.
Homer's confidence and self-reliance answer are exemplory for a man of any color. And
that is the movie's answer to racism. Homer is neither more nor less for being black. He is
what he is regardless of his color, as confident in his abilities as any other hero of any
other movie. When one white man does call him "boy", Homer does it right back to him --
with no animosity but just as any man might to his equal who had insulted him.
That brilliantly sensible approach to racial tensions is, in my mind, what makes this movie
more than merely a charming comedy, set in unlikely circumstances.
The comedy is worth seeing the movie anyway. You have to see Poitier's face when he's given
a single egg for breakfast at the start of a day of work. And the spirtual, "Amen", will never
sound the same after you hear and watch it sung by a chorus of nuns who barely know a word
of English. It is a must-see.
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