Sidney Poitier was fortunate and cursed: lucky to be the first black man to become a full movie star, unlucky to arrive in the 50s, when Hollywood tried to atone for its guilty racial conscience by creating parables of black sanctity under white oppression. So Poitier got to be a credit to his race first, then an emblem of a sleepy industry’s slow ethical awakening, and only last an actor. He bore up stoically as a black doctor in the 1950 No Way Out, was a tough teen with a liberal heart in The Blackboard Jungle and here, in Stanley Kramer’s Oscar-nominated drama, did a stretch as Noah Cullen, an escaped prisoner manacled to Tony Curtis’s racist con Joker Jackson. It was a strong role, but heavy on the smoldering suffering of someone unjustly condemned for the crime of being black. Really, how many different ways are there to play Jesus?
Lenny Bruce found The Defiant Ones so risible that he built a routine around it, ending with this grandly intoned moral: “To play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ you need the black keys and the darkies.” But to the credit of the movie (co-written by the blacklisted Nedrick Young), the movie doesn’t underline the allegory. It works as a character-driven chase movie; it’s as if Native Son‘s Bigger Thomas, on the run from the law, suddenly discovered he was the Siamese twin of a nasty redneck. And Poitier gets to show a streak of exasperation at his plight. For the handsome, soft-spoken actor, rage was not an option. Five years later, he won a Best Actor Oscar — first ever for a black in a leading role — as the Christlike vagabond helping a convent of nuns in Lilies of the Field. Better to play Jesus than Pullman car porters.