Armchair Cinephile

It's that time of year again. Personally, I have always found it a bit patronizing that somebody decided one out of 12 months should be "Black History Month." It's like Hallmark telling you that you should take one day out of 365 to be nice to your mother. But, Mom never sends those flowers back, does she? And movie lovers shouldn't turn up their noses when a long-overdue special edition like Super Fly, one of the most iconic of all black-oriented films (thanks largely to Curtis Mayfield's immortal song) shows up in stores just before February 1.

This year's offerings also focus on a career that never dipped into the moral quandaries of Blaxploitation. Some would fault him for it, but Sidney Poitier made a career out of dignity while many around him played pimps, pushers, and hustlers. Many of Poitier's best-known films are already on disc, but MGM is filling in some gaps this month, individually issuing some obscure titles and collecting five high-profile ones in a box set.

Lilies of the Field, the earliest of the titles, earned the actor his only Academy Award (not counting 2002's honorary Oscar). A gently funny, family-friendly story, it demonstrates Poitier's almost unique ability to retain his self-respect in positions that could make another actor look subservient. His character Homer Smith is an itinerant worker on his way to California; he stumbles across a small group of nuns in the desert who see him as a divine gift. They immediately put him to work on a chapel, and while most of the sisters admire him, their comically stern leader takes it for granted that he should toil for the Lord without pay.

That kind of Driving Miss Daisy stuff doesn't always go over well with contemporary audiences, and for good reason. But throughout the film, Homer clearly has his own reasons for what he's doing; he is building the chapel for some German nuns, but it's his name that finally gets scratched into the wet concrete atop the bell tower. For a character whose ambitions are grander than his opportunities, it's not an insignificant victory.

The "Sidney Poitier Collection" also contains For the Love of Ivy, a romance that pairs him with singing star Abbey Lincoln, but the centerpiece is a trilogy featuring Virgil Tibbs. The second and third movies in that series are fairly routine cop dramas, but the original is a real treasure.

In the Heat of the Night may have been conceived as a Message Movie, a way for director Norman Jewison to move from lightweight comedies to more "important" fare. But in the context of other such pictures, it's startlingly entertaining; you would expect its conflict to feel more dated, but the cast and direction keep the drama compelling. Tibbs is a Philly cop traveling through the deep South. After being wrongly rousted as a murder suspect, he is recruited to help the local police chief (Rod Steiger) with a case that's out of his league. Racial tension simmers throughout, and Tibbs almost gets torn limb from limb a couple of times, but Poitier is such a galvanizing presence that it's impossible to see the conflict as generic: it's the town against Virgil Tibbs, not against some idealized black man.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Poitier's unimpeachable presence in '50s and '60s Hollywood, but Poitier seemed understandably to tire of being the world's righteous black man. In the mid-'70s, he directed and starred in a trilogy of broad, light-hearted comedies in which he played average Joes trying to get ahead. Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action bring the high living of Blaxploitation into something more like the real world. With buddy Bill Cosby, Poitier's characters hatch get-rich schemes and infiltrate gambling clubs, but the comedy derives from the duo being out of place. Fairly dated now, the movies are only really entertaining when the camera is on Cosby; making people laugh isn't Poitier's strong suit. Still, for humanizing black America in a decade dominated by dope-peddling and vigilante fantasies, Poitier's career continues to be worth celebrating.

As was the soul music of the '60s, as the new documentary Only the Strong Survive demonstrates. Renowned documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus catch up with the veterans of Stax Records, filming them in concert and seeing how they live now. A promotional quote claims the film is "more satisfying" than Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Buena Vista Social Club, but that's just not true. Unlike those films, this one features established stars; there is no sense of discovery. But Only the Strong shows just how well some of these singers - Sam Moore, Ann Peebles, and Jerry Butler - have aged, and that's reason enough for any soul fan to watch it. •


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