A Patch of Blue

A Patch of Blue ★★★★

"Would you like a slug in the puss?"

I, uh… does that mean, like, what I think it means? Ha, wild. No wonder she won the Oscar for this.

Though the awards and notoriety in A Patch of Blue go to Shelley Winters, I'm watching this 1965 drama to contribute to Black History Month with another Sidney Poitier performance. I have a busy weekend full of screeners to watch for Film Independent, so tonight and tomorrow will be my last purposeful nods to the aforementioned month.

Notable not just for that Oscar-winning supporting role for Winters -- the second of her career -- as an unhinged and violently racist mother, but also for a scene of interracial kiss so scandalous more than fifty years ago that it was cut from the theatrical release, what might on the surface seem like another maudlin race conscious film is actually a quite dramatic story of escape and defeating prejudice. Poitier is of course tremendous in a film that says "love is blind" and takes it literally, and somehow spins a winning formula out of that cliché.

Blind 18-year-old Selina D'Arcey (Elizabeth Hartman in her first film role) lives in the city with her alcoholic grandfather she calls Old Pa (Wallace Ford in his last film role) and her abusive and crass mother Rose-Ann (Winters). Rose-Ann works as a prostitute which barely pays for the dingy apartment, so Selina is forced to make bead necklaces to supplement the family income. She's been blind since she was five after an accident that her mother caused and has left ugly scars on her face, and she has virtually no education. One day after Old Pa sits her by a tree in the park to string some beads, she's helped by the genial and intelligent Gordon Ralfe (Poitier) and quickly the two become friendly as he does feel bad for her blindness but sees much more behind that handicap of a sweet young woman who's stuck in a horrible situation. She becomes enamored with this kind man, and he learns her past has been full of abuse, neglect, and even rape.

Soon, things become even worse for Selina. Rose-Ann's friend Sadie (Elisabeth Fraser), who also works as a prostitute, helps convince her that Selina can be "useful." The three leave Old Pa so the teenager can work in their profession too. As Gordon learns of this, and hopes to enroll her in a school for the blind, Selina has one chance to escape.

The scenes with Poitier and Hartman are just so well done. The type of "message film" that could easily age really poorly, instead A Patch of Blue handles the sweet friendship with such ease and intelligence. He helps show her the world, in a way, that she's never even been introduced to; she teaches him what a true friend really is, without prejudice or judgement.

Poitier is beyond charming. Maybe too much? I'm reminded of his utterly perfect character in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (which I watched a year ago yesterday) where his flawless personality is necessary to help the audience have no possible chance to dislike him. That's the case here too, but it works.

Of course on the other hand is probably one of the all-time despicable characters played by Shelley Winters, who anchors the other side of the film that's full of real darkness and pain, and comes out with some vile language and racist slurs. Director Guy Green doesn't shy from it, and the script he wrote based on Elizabeth Kata's novel deftly switches from light and family-friendly to harrowing and dramatic. It would be so easy to dismiss a movie like this which so looks like it would be another magical Negro helping an innocent White woman, but damnit this is marvelously made and acted that A Patch of Blue shines so brightly.

Sure, you could look at this as naive and dated I guess. Pretty much any movie from this era that tackles race is going to have some problems a half-century later. But here it's done with a real sensitivity and total believability as well. You never doubt that this man is kind enough to help in his way, that this girl could fall for him simply because he's the first to ever care for her, and that this mother could be so horrifically reprehensible because no one's ever told her no. Really just a fantastic film that surprised me in a few ways, notably that any ounce of schmaltz or melodrama is either negligible or forgivable. Add in a wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith and you've got yourself a great movie.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Kevin Jones.

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