by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Thinking over my earliest experiences with black film, reminded me of the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala. The story is a simple one: a traveling laborer stops for water at an Arizona convent and becomes the answer to the German Sister’s prayers. He fixes their roof, teaches them English, and builds them a chapel. At first, the local community resists his interference–often in racialized terms–but, eventually, most of the town comes together to help. In the end, all the tasks complete, the laborer leads the Sisters as they all sing “Amen,” he packs and prepares to leave, and Mother Maria mourns his departure.
I have not seen the film in decades, but it often ran on television while I was growing up, and I suppose its Catholicism and Humanism drew me to it. I remember that I watched it often and often confused it with Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), a film with which it has almost nothing in common. (Perhaps my memory sorts movies with Catholic Sisters and Nuns into a shared file? But, I have never confused these films with The Sound of Music (1965).)
Sidney Poitier won the Golden Globe and the Golden Bear for his portrayal of Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field. He also became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the film. Whenever I think of Poitier in a abstract sense, I think of his role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). I have argued that Spencer Tracy was the greatest American actor, and I always appreciated greatly Poitier’s counter point to Tracy’s characterization in that film. However, whenever I picture Poitier, I picture him as Homer Smith. When I first encountered him in this movie, I had no idea who he was or what he meant to anyone. There simply was something about the image of him drinking coffee with the Sisters that stuck in my mind.
The film is significant for its initial reception. Its place in black film history is retained by the awards it garnered Poitier. Otherwise, the film may be best remembered because the role of Homer Smith was originally offered to Harry Belafonte, who turned it down because he thought the role problematic.
In a 2011 interview, Richard Porton asks Belafonte about his relationship with Poitier:
It’s well known that you turned down some starring roles, including leads in Porgy and Bess and Lilies of the Field, which Sidney Poitier eventually accepted. Since you thought these roles were demeaning, did you ever discuss these choices with him?
Yes, I discussed it with him. He defended his motives. I held to my thoughts on the subject and we decided to get on with our lives and not dwell on it. It wasn’t a friendship-breaking decision; just a bit of an annoyance. But Sidney did great things. And he was the right person at the right place at the right time to be anointed as the first black force in American popular culture to break open a system that was so tightly closed to us. He should be honored and admired for what he accomplished, even if he had to tip the deck on occasion. That’s OK. We got the best we could hope for.
And, in the end, I take Belafonte’s advice on this film and this actor.