Cry The Beloved Country (1951)

As an American, the history of Apartheid is still something I feel relatively ignorant of even as I must confess to still be learning constantly about our own history of segregation in the U.S. This is part of what makes me marvel at Cry The Beloved Country, which really is one of a kind — a bit of a gem plucked out of the 1950s.

Because the talents are innumerable, a young Sidney Poitier on the rise and Canada Lee in what would turn out to be his final screen role. I haven’t seen many of them, but this might be his best. Because although there is plenty of time to speak of Poitier for any number of movies, well worth our time and consideration, this particular film is carried first and foremost by Lee.

It impresses upon us a certain dignity of spirit. He’s a priest named Kumalo, stately and compassionate in all aspects. His eyes bear the same melancholy of a man who has been forced live under the weight of many hardships. It also makes us yearn that his stage efforts might have been captured for posterity as he famously worked with a theatrical wunderkind in Orson Welles and built up quite a career for himself. Alas, this was not to be.

One must confess that the reason for his starring turn was partially out of necessity. American, now deep in the throes of the Red Scare, was no friend to him or anyone who purportedly had Communist connections, whether real or imagined. The fact that he was black definitely didn’t help matters (Just ask Paul Robeson).

Meanwhile, Sidney Poitier was on the entirely opposite end of his career: Now in his early 20s and coming from the stage to navigate the strictures of Hollywood set before him. He’s so young, but he holds a civility and a stature that make him feel fully present and somehow wise beyond his years. This would be a trend throughout his lifetime.

If it’s not evident already, Alan Paton’s 1948 novel is totally engaged with the contemporary issues of South Africa, ranging from systemic racism to pervasive poverty. If they are contextualized to this culture, surely we aren’t ignorant enough to believe they have no bearing on our own historical background.

So here we are in South Africa offered an auspicious film by Zoltan Korda meant to be about something of real consequence — to speak of the ills and indiscretions of society — when we purposely build structures of oppression. The production is steeped in its share of legends, the most famous one being Korda pronouncing Lee and Poitier as his manservants so he could get them into the country to film. If nothing else, it adds not only to the aura but also the concrete reality of what is in front of us.

For a black man, Johannesburg feels very much like the valley of the shadow of death. When Reverend Stephen Kumalo (Lee) receives a letter, it sends word that his sister is ill. His mission is twofold: support his ailing sibling and track down his son Absalom.

In many ways, Cry, The Beloved Country is a journey film as one man pursues answers and then restitution for a life. I wouldn’t say all the performances feel natural, but at the center of the drama Lee and Poitier act as a bit of an anchor for the entire movie. We have them to cling to. And even if the local, untrained performers leave something to be desired in terms of emotional resonance, the milieu around them speaks volumes.

There is an austere veracity that’s innate to on-location shooting. You could not possibly achieve this kind of atmosphere any other way. The overall degradation and the poverty are palpable in most every frame filled with the blocks of shantytowns.

It also willfully engages with issues of black-on-white crime. In a society whose social structures and racial castes are tenuous at best, these are perilous waters to breach. The newspaper headlines detailing a botched robbery are made far worse by their immediacy.

The man killed was an idealistic reformer envisioning a world of greater equality and stability for the black community. This show of brutality against someone sympathetic to their plight is poor P.R. nor does it placate his crusty old father (Charles Carson), who never believed much in his crusading, to begin with. For people of his age and estate, white is white, black is black, and never the twain shall meet. It’s not to say evolution is not possible…Between the frail sympathies of his wife (Joyce Carey), looking at his late son’s writings, and a fateful encounter, there’s still room for ample growth.

However, this crime also has bearing on Stephen as well. Because his boy Absalom is one of the men implicated in the killing. It’s a father’s worst nightmare, and he’s powerless to prevent it. Here two fathers are juxtaposed while coping with two strains of unfathomable grief.

Soon court dates are set, and there’s a trial for the murder of young Jarvis and the impending deliberations.  Although all the elements are there, the plotting and execution never add up to anything that feels more than intermittently affecting. It’s the kind of film I like the idea of it and what it stands for rather than what it actually culminates to onscreen.

Make no mistake. Cry, the Beloved Country feels like imperative viewing if we want to understand what empathy is in the face of our own limitations and human biases. To my knowledge, it’s nearly an unprecedented historical documentation granting center stage to black actors who deserved more acclaim. And thus, our attention must consider and appreciate the performances.

For Poitier, in a fledgling career, there would be still so much ahead of him. For Canada Lee, an unfairly forgotten talent now, it was the end. He would go the way of his buddy John Garfield and many others, perishing no thanks to the toxic industry around him. Cry, The Beloved Country is not a great movie, but it’s an understated one, brimming with solemnity, and sometimes we would do well to have this posture. We can mourn our own sins, the sins perpetrated against us, and the sobering reality that the world is not as it should be.

3/5 Stars

Note: This review was originally written before the passing of Sidney Poitier on January 6, 2022

Body and Soul (1947)

body_and_soul_1947_movie_posterJohn Garfield was never the most dashing of leading men but nevertheless, he was always thoroughly compelling as ambitious working class stiffs during the 1940s. He had a straightforward tenacity about him like he had to fight his way to the top. At the same time likable and destined for trouble right out of the gates. You can cheer for him and still rue the decisions that he makes. That’s what makes his foray as boxing champ Charlie Davis all the more believable. His aspirations are of a very real nature and they give his character a genuine makeup.

Abraham Polonsky’s (Force of Evil) script for director Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul drops us in the middle of the life of Charlie Davis (Garfield). He’s the big “Champ” of the local boxing world with a fresh bout coming up soon but he doesn’t seem all that happy. He’s restless in sleep, haunted by specters, and everyone from his mother to his girl seems to be distant. We don’t know what it all means and yet in the ensuing unfoldings of the plot we begin to understand the true gravity of the situation.

He comes from a humble background on the seedy side of town where his parents (Anne Revere and Art Smith) run a humble candy shop that barely allows them to get by. He’s handy in the ring and wins an amateur prize. Part of his winnings includes a dance with a pretty gal named Peg (Lilli Palmer). It’s just part of her job but being persistent he looks to get to know her and call on her again. She allows it.

Mrs. Davis wants her son to go to night school, leave boxing behind, and make an honest living. Pool halls and speakeasies are not a place to make a life, much less a boxing ring. And Charlie tries to make an honest go of it for a time, but he’s going nowhere fast.

With the backing of his best bud Shorty, Charlie gets in with a small-time promoter (William Conrad) who still is big potatoes compared to what they’re used to. Soon it’s more wins, larger pots, and then Charlie hits the big leagues when a ruthless promoter named Roberts (Lloyd Gough) comes in his corner. It means heavy payoffs on all accounts. Charlie can put Peg up in a nice place and take better care of his mother. They can sell the family candy store. Even Shorty gets a bigger cut.

But Charlie has finally lost sight of his priorities. When the film establishes itself back in the present, we soon realize that the big time boxer has fallen away, compromising everything that gave him integrity. And as a result, all those close to him resolve to let him find his own path. It’s likely to lose him money or worse yet get him killed but Charlie’s dilemma is far greater than that. This is a fight for his very soul as he struggles to hold onto his morals, grappling with his conscious.

Lilli Palmer is a breath of fresh air as the love interest who is intelligent and refined with a penchant for art and poetry. Her German roots give her a rather unplaceable accent and she’s equal parts beauty and charm. She’s a cut above Charlie but the very fact that he goes for her suggests something about his sensibilities. There’s also a highly sympathetic African American character for that day and age in Charlie’s fellow boxer Ben portrayed with extraordinary grace by Canada Lee.

And you only have to go down the line to notice many interesting performances. The opportunistic Alice (Hazel Brooks) is beguiling as a perfect counter to Peg. Her accomplice and equally sleazy partner Quinn (William Conrad) proves a meaty role for the actor who served as a delightful heavy in many films noir. His visage, build, and voice gives him a leg up on a great deal of the competition. Anne Revere plays the disapproving yet concerned mother with relative ease and Shorty (Joseph Pevney) is surprisingly adequate as Charlie’s best pal, a man who first sees only dollar bills flashed in front of him, yet still has enough gumption to know when to back out.

The Set-Up filmed a couple years later was a fine boxing film along similar lines. But with more to work with and a robust cast, Body and Soul is a fuller study not simply with gritty boxing scenes but also a gripping character analysis indicative of the human condition. It’s precisely the multifaceted drama that its title suggests.  Cinematographer James Wong Howe’s sequences in the boxing ring are especially dynamic supposedly created by racing around the ring on roller skates. The film is also covered by the foreboding clouds of the blacklist that claimed the careers of many of those involved including John Garfield, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Art Smith, and numerous others. But despite the unforgivable blot of the blacklist, Body and Soul still stands as a marvelous example of the potent capabilities of film noir. That remains untarnished.

4/5 Stars