Dryden Theatre Begins Sidney Poitier Series

(Photo via IMDb).

(Photo via IMDb).

On Saturday, January 28th, the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum marked the start of their series Breaking Barriers: The Films of Sidney Poitier. The theatre will be screening seven of the actor’s films, with the final showing on February 25th. 

The first film in this series was Cry, the Beloved Country (Zoltan Korda, 1951), adapted from the 1948 Alan Paton novel of the same name. It centers on the story of preacher Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee) as he witnesses the effects of apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa. Originally intending only to find his sister after a letter beckons him, Kumalo is shocked at the state of South Africa outside his rural abode. His countrymen inform him that they must live in shantytowns on the outskirts of the cities, while the white settlers live in large apartments. After meeting Reverend Msimangu (Sidney Poitier), the two seek to heal Kumalo’s family from the pains of apartheid, confronted still by the fact that many will continue to suffer. 

Creating this film was a dangerous act. As the film was introduced on Saturday, the audience was informed how only exterior shots could be filmed in South Africa, while most of the film was made in England. In order for Lee and Poitier to come to the country to act, they had to be declared as indentured servants so as not to cause any suspicion. But it was not only in fear of the South African government. After working on the film, Lee was inspired to share the circumstances of the native South Africans in a report. This caused him to be summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to be questioned on the nature of these activities. However, he died tragically of heart failure before being able to appear or finish his report.

Technically speaking, the film can occasionally be difficult to follow. Sound quality is lacking in many scenes, and the danger of the exterior shots made it so that many had to be quite brief. But the historical significance of it being the first major film shot in South Africa and the skills of the cast illuminate the piece. In contrast to Poitier’s later works, this performance may seem small or unimportant. A relatively minor role, Lee’s performance can sometimes overshadow the Poitier we have grown to love. But in scenes where his character’s emotions are drawn out, as he shows his sadness and anger at the circumstances of the livelihood of the country, this is where Poitier truly shines.

Next Saturday, Poitier will be shown again in A Raisin in the Sun (1961). More films in the series include To Sir, With Love (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1968). Dates and tickets can be found on the Dryden’s website, with student discounts of more than half price.