Sometimes you watch a film and you think, “Oh, that was pretty good.” Sometimes you watch a film and forget about it. And sometimes you watch a film and it never, ever leaves you. A Patch of Blue, starring Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman, is one of those films.
I stumbled across this film through Fred Willard’s Magnificent Movie Trivia. Its synopsis promised a moralizing tale set in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, guaranteed to raise your social consciousness: A blind white girl falls in love with a black man. I was skeptical yet intrigued, and I was pleased when my initial assumptions proved wrong. Very wrong. Nothing–I repeat, nothing–about this film is banal, stereotypical, or moralizing. It has aged incredibly well. As Sidney Poitier wrote in his autobiography, The Measure of a Man:
“I was dipping into emotional pockets that were new to me. This was a white girl, and we were in 1960s America. This was a revolutionary attempt at filmmaking, so I was mentally awake in every way. I had my eye out, my ear out, and I was quite primed to make sure that nothing untrue, uncomplimentary, or stereotypical occurred. I wanted to make sure that the story was told with dignity and respect for the questions involved. This wasn’t the story of an interracial couple, mind you. This was simply a guy trying to help a young girl who was in need. It was a very human story.”
Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) is a blind, uneducated white girl who suffers excruciating abuse at home from her mother, whom she calls Roseanne (played brilliantly by Shelley Winters, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and even her more sympathetic Ol’Pa. She stays home alone during the day, responsible for the housekeeping and stringing beads to sell. She has no friends, no social life, not even any knowledge of braille or how to navigate the world. Her Ol’Pa finally concedes her wish to visit the park one day, and there she meets Gordon (Sidney Poitier).
Gordon helps relieve Selina’s terror of a caterpillar.
Through Gordon, Selina experiences friendship and kindness. He teaches her how to cross a busy street, how to operate a telephone, even how to find the public restroom. As their friendship grows, Selina becomes deeply attached to Gordon, who cares for Selina but also understands the importance of her realizing her own independence. He becomes determined to not only be her friend but to help her escape her abusive environment. Selina, of course, never realizes that he is black, even when a discussion of race arises between them, until her racist mother discovers their friendship and confronts her, leading to one of the most abusive scenes in the film.
The abuse and neglect Selina endures makes the film difficult to watch at times, only to be mollified by the sincere honesty and compassion of Gordon. As Poitier wrote, A Patch of Blue is a very human story. The story imparts the unjust racial prejudices prevalent in society, but I saw it as much more about humanity and the need for kindness and friendship, coupled with tolerance and understanding, in our world. Three of my favorite scenes illustrate this sentiment.
Gordon introduces Selina to pineapple juice, something she has never tasted, and she falls in love with the beverage. After Gordon leaves to go to work, Selina waits for her Ol’Pa, who arrives late. She calls out, “Is anybody there?” She asks not because she is looking for help but because she wants to be sure no one is there so she might relieve herself. The next day, then, when Gordon again brings her pineapple juice, she refuses the drink. Gordon immediately understands, whispering that he can show her the way to the rest rooms. It is such a delicate subject, and the understanding and kindness with which Gordon handles it is simply beautiful.
After grocery shopping together, Gordon fixes lunch for Selina at his home. Selina becomes enchanted with his grandmother’s music box, and she questions him about his grandmother and how she got the music box. The subject of love arises, and Selina tells Gordon of her experience with love–of how she was raped by a male “friend” of her prostitute mother. Selina speaks without fully understanding the gravity of what she is saying, and Gordon, horrified, cannot respond. “Are you still there?” she finally asks him. “I–I’m here,” is his succinct, touching reply.
Gordon has left for work and Selina is again alone waiting for her grandfather. It begins to rain violently, and you feel the depth of Selina’s fear and isolation as she cries out for help. Gordon passes through by chance and leads her to a nearby gazebo. “Is it dark out?” she asks. “Yes,” Gordon tells her. “I’m glad,” she says, “because it makes you more like me.” She does not realize the breadth of their differences nor does she understand how similar they really are–each battling cruelty yet still approaching the world with respect and awe. Once the rain stops, Gordon helps Selina out of the gazebo, warning her of a step. “Don’t let go,” she pleads. “I won’t,” he promises.
A Patch of Blue is as beautiful a film as its score, written by Jerry Goldsmith and nominated for an Academy Award. (Goldsmith was previously nominated for his work on Freud.) A Patch of Blue is both a love story and a social commentary, but is not melodramatic or unrealistic, like many romances, and it is not moralizing or finger-pointing, like many social commentaries. At its core, though, A Patch of Blue is simply a poignant story of kindness and cruelty, intolerance and understanding–a very human story indeed.