Two escapees from a chain gang, one black and one white, handcuffed together, race across a stark Southern landscape in pursuit of freedom. The convicts don’t like each other, and they have different ideas about what freedom means, but their destinies are bound together as long as their wrists are linked, and the law is on their trail. The actors are Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, and the movie is Stanley Kramer’s seminal civil rights classic “The Defiant Ones” (1958), featured as part of our Sidney Poitier Movie Marathon, this month on MGM HD.
In 1958, Sidney Poitier’s career was on the ascent and his starring role in “The Defiant Ones” was key to establishing him as Hollywood’s first African American leading man. Though most of his previous roles had been supporting parts, Poitier had caught the attention of director Stanley Kramer enough to make him his first choice for the part of Noah Cullen. As a testimony to his faith in Poitier’s acting talent, Kramer originally planned to cast him opposite the formidable Marlon Brando. When Brando was unavailable, he cast Tony Curtis in what would be a pivotal role in his career as well.
The issues “The Defiant Ones” explores are just as relevant today as they were when the film was released sixty-three years ago. Poitier’s performance conveyed the anguish and fears of a character who lived in a world where a person’s race dictated how far ground down he could be. When Poitier’s Cullen tells Curtis’ character, “I ain’t gettin’ mad Joker, I been mad all my natural life,” we can feel the truth coming through. When the men are threatened with death by a local vigilante (brilliantly played by the underrated Claude Akins) Curtis’ character reminds us just how close to the surface the skin color defense always is: “You can’t go lynchin’ me, I’m a white man.”
But “The Defiant Ones” has a larger point to make. Even after they break free of the literal chains that connect them, our two antiheroes are still bound together by something approaching friendship. “This picture,” Sidney Poitier told Studs Terkel after the film’s release, “started where these two men began, from the beginning, to expose areas of themselves, one to the other, and you watch this relationship grow until these men develop a love for one another.” The message is that we are, ultimately, our brother’s keeper and that our fates are intertwined.
Sidney Poitier would go on to make a career of showing the humanity in his characters in a career that would last into the 21st century and make him one of our most enduring and beloved stars.
Enjoy “The Defiant Ones” along with the jazz-themed melodrama, “Paris Blues” (1961) the western, “Duel at Diablo” (1966), and the thrillers “They Call Me Mister Tibbs,” (1970) and “The Organization” (1971) in our Sidney Poitier Movie Marathon, this month on MGM HD.