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Lilies of the Field

Sidney Poitier builds a chapel and makes history.

Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier, is not about black history. It is a part of black history. His performance earned him a well-deserved Oscar, the first awarded to an African American.

Poitier plays Homer, an itenerant handyman. As he passes through New Mexico, he stops for water at a mission run by German nuns. The Mother Superior (Lilia Skala) demands he fix the mission roof. Misunderstanding her as trying to hire him, he does the work. The next morning she refuses to pay him but says God has sent him to build their chapel.

Through a comedy of errors and misunderstandings he keeps working just one more day. In between days of work, evening English lessons, cultural clashes and further misunderstandings continue the comedy.

The movie deals very subtley with racism, so subtley that today's viewers can miss the issue. As others have noted elsewhere, it carries none of the anger that might be expected in a 1960's film about racial interaction.

Homer's confidence and self-reliance answer are exemplory for a man of any color. And that is the movie's answer to racism. Homer is neither more nor less for being black. He is what he is regardless of his color, as confident in his abilities as any other hero of any other movie. When one white man does call him "boy", Homer does it right back to him -- with no animosity but just as any man might to his equal who had insulted him.

That brilliantly sensible approach to racial tensions is, in my mind, what makes this movie more than merely a charming comedy, set in unlikely circumstances.

The comedy is worth seeing the movie anyway. You have to see Poitier's face when he's given a single egg for breakfast at the start of a day of work. And the spirtual, "Amen", will never sound the same after you hear and watch it sung by a chorus of nuns who barely know a word of English. It is a must-see.

Lilies of the Field
on DVD

Lilies of the Field
on VHS

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