TODAY in Black Film History
THE DEFIANT ONES
Released September 24, 1958 New York Premiere ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Two convicts, one black (Sidney Poitier) and the other white (Tony Curtis), escape from a prison van shackled together by a two-foot chain. As they flee through woods and swamps, on the run from the law, the two find they cannot run from one another. Curtis, bigoted and threatening, and Poitier, sensitive but exploding with resentment because of a lifetime spent reacting to racism, fight, argue and taunt one another. By the time their chains have been broken and free to go their separate ways, a bond unites them. Each comes to the rescue of the other at a moment of crisis. Most notably, the Poitier character, who, having boarded a moving freight train taking him to freedom, leaps off to aid his white friend, who is not strong enough to jump on board. Aware that the law will now close in on them, Poitier sits and cradling a weakened and injured Curtis in his arms, sings "Long Gone" as the sheriff arrives to arrest them.
The Defiant Ones was released only four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education and with the Montgomery bus boycott still fresh in the minds of the audience. The civil rights laws of the 1960s were not yet written.
Today, perhaps, the symbolism of the film seems obvious in its message, but at the time, the story and the characters were controversial. Both the subject of interracial male bonding and the dialogue, including director Stanley Kramer’s willingness to use the word “nigger," were confrontational. The issue of racial prejudice was not a usual topic for timid Hollywood film, especially in such an open and progressive manner.
Kramer, one of Hollywood's most socially conscious independent producer/directors, did not shy away from attacking controversial issues with big screen productions. ⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
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