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Sidney Poitier’s ‘Patch of Blue’ is Not Exactly Your Typical “Magical Negro” Movie

Sidney Poitier’s 'Patch of Blue’ is Not Exactly Your Typical "Magical Negro" Movie

I admit that
I have a certain fondness for Sidney Poitier’s 1965 MGM film “A Patch of Blue.” One can look at the film today with our jaded, cynical eyes, and say it’s corny,
predictable and woefully naïve. But there’s a real sincerity at the center
of the film; and even though you can look at it as an early example of the “Magical
Negro” film, I think it does go beyond that simple description in a few
ways.

And by
Magical Negro I am referring, of course, to that enduring, self-sacrificing black movie character, who serves only to the
needs, desires and improvements of the main white character, with no benefit of his/her own.

The film,
which was directed by former British cinematographer turned director Guy Green,
was originally released on Warner Home Video over a decade ago, but was out of print for several years. However, a year ago, it was re-released on Warner’s
DVD-on demand specialty video label, Warner Archive.

The film’s
basic plot is a relatively simple one, in which Poitier plays Gordon Ralfe, who, while walking through the park on a lunch break, comes across a young, white, blind
girl making jewelry – Selina D’Arcey (played
by Elizabeth Hartman). Intrigued by her, they eventually develop a deep friendship
in which Ralfe finds out that Selina is going through hell living with her
highly dysfunctional family, made up by a
cruel, abusive mother (Shelley Winters – who won the Academy Award
for Best Supporting Actress the following year, for her role in the film), and a weak, drunken sot of a grandfather. He also finds out that she is basically uneducated
and totally naïve about the world.

The title
of the film comes from her description of the sky, which was the last thing she remembers
before losing her sight as a little girl in an accident caused by her mother.

So Ralfe
takes it upon himself to teach Selina basic living skills, and to become more
self-sufficient in life, as their relationship turns into a romance, before she’s sent off to a school for the blind, at the end.

As I previously
said, the film may sound like your typical Magic Negro movie (one can almost
imagine Will Smith playing the role today in a remake), but there are some significant
differences which I think make the film stand out.

First of all,
the typical Magical Negro has some sort of mysterious or near supernatural power, like Michael Clarke Duncan’s simple-minded, Christ-like John Coffey in “The
Green Mile,” or Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” who literally materializes out of the darkness, like some sort of apparition, only to return into the darkness at the end of the film.

Poitier’s
Ralfe, however, is just an ordinary working stiff, stuck in the day-to-day grind, and, unlike other Magical Negroes who have no back-story or interior life, we do
get some scenes of Ralfe’s private life with friends, as well as his struggles in the face of the blunt racism of the time, which makes him somewhat cautious at first, in dealing with
Selina.

Then, of
course, there are the matters of love and sex. Magical Negroes are
always sexually neutered, practically asexual, so as not to offend the “delicate sensibilities” of white audiences. But in “Blue,” Selina eventually falls head over heels in
love with Ralfe, as he does with her. But Ralfe intentionally keeps his distance, knowing that getting involved with a white woman, let alone a blind one, is
going to lead to all sorts of problems. However, the look in his eyes say something else altogether.

Ralfe is always
very aware of his blackness and the ongoing thorny issue of race, which is
the main reason why he avoids telling her that he is black. And, remember, we’re
talking the mid-1960’s. In fact, some
scenes in the film between Ralfe and Selina – including a kiss between them – were,
not surprisingly, cut in some Southern
states.

Race is
the other underlining tension in the film that other Magical Negro films typically avoid.
In fact, it’s never even bought up at all in those kinds of films, creating a fantastical,
so called “post-racial” environment. However, the relationship between Ralfe and Selina
gets especially sticky when her mother discovers their relationship, and blows a gasket, revealing her racist, vile views, confirming Ralfe’s
apprehensions. However, the news that Ralfe is black makes Selina happy and only intensifies
her love for him.

In the end,
Rolfe is torn between sending Selina away to a blind school, because of his
feelings for her, and letting her stay; but he knows her leaving is the right thing to do, because any relationship with her, is very likely doomed to fail, because of society’s rules – at the time.

The film was
one of Poitier’s career hits during the period, and solidified his
standing as one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. Tragically, the same cannot
be said for Hartmann. Though she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for
her performance in the film, she spent the next decade or so, acting mainly in
supporting roles in a few films, and the occasional TV show, due to her life long
struggle with severe depression.

Eventually, she retired from acting for good in the early 80’s, and moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked in a museum, while getting treatment for her mental condition. However, a divorce, and other problems, made life too much to bear, and she committed suicide
by jumping out of a window in 1987.

“A Patch of
Blue” is far from perfect, though it is a perfect example of liberal Hollywood filmmaking
of the 1960’s. But it sincerely means well, and its heart is in the right place; and overall, it is a more complex and honest film than what you may expect.

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