In memory of Sidney Poitier – Paris Blues: Black Romance and Jazz
Photo: Wikimedia Commons / White House. Former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, center, congratulates Sidney Poitier, left, after receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009 The other research recipients are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and back row, left to right: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Chita Rivera, Dr Janet Davison Rowley and Muhammad Yunus.
With the recent passing of Sidney Poitier, the time may have come to revisit a neglected film from his long legacy, “Paris Blues”. The 1961 film introduced new questions about race, music, and romance that critics didn’t appreciate at the time – but which stand out today as progressives.
Parisian blues was a 1961 jazz drama that explored personal relationships, race relations, and dedication to jazz culture. Critics at the time considered it to be a flawed product based on a sentimental novel by Harold Flender, a New York Jewish writer enamored of the centrality of jazz to the cosmopolitan Paris scene of the 1950s.
The city was a haven for musicians, artists and writers in the decades following the world wars. Pioneers of black American expatriates have left an imprint on the culture, including soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, novelist Richard Wright and artist Josephine Baker – most recently the first black woman to be inducted into the French Pantheon.
Shot on location, the cast included Sidney Poitier as a saxophonist in a combo with Paul newman, trombonist. They play expat musicians in the clubhouse cellar group and find a community with an assortment of jazz dogs, groupies, and performers.
Parisian blues. Image: YouTube.
By adapting the novel for cinema, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, reinstated from the Hollywood blacklist for his views on communism, recreates the bohemian subculture of a wine merchant. At its best, the film features memorable jazz scenes on several levels, including a few cameo gems. Most notably, he contrasts black and white romance episodes with a rare sense of fairness.
Novice filmmakers were producers Sam shaw, a photographer best known for the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing above a subway gate, and Martin ritt at the start of his career as a director of social realism stories like “Sounder” and “Norma Rae”.
Musically, “Paris Blues” featured an original soundtrack from Duke Ellington Orchestra – including compositions like “Take the A Train”, “Mood Indigo” and “Paris Blues” – and was nominated for an Oscar but lost to West Side Story. It also included rugged scenes with Louis armstrong like a jazz deity on tour in the city.
Until his death, Poitier was the oldest living Oscar winner for Best Actor and the first black man to receive it for the 1963 melodrama, “Lilies of the Field”. Newman, of course, has been a ten-time Oscar nominee and winner for best actor for the 1986 film, “The Color of Money.” Over long careers, they have become the symbols of modern American man for the baby boom generation.
The story revolves around Poitier and Newman’s life as popular musicians in the city. Poitier is a relaxed, serious and not too ambitious jazzman; all he has to do is play the music he loves, find respect and earn a living – even if his life is far removed from the civil rights struggle in his country. Newman is a creative, brooding, and overly ambitious figure; he looks more in jazz than in trombone and conducting a combo – he wants to be respected as a composer of “serious” music.
Their lives become more complicated with the introduction of two American women on vacation and changing their own circumstances. One is the black actress, Diahann Carroll; she embodies a teacher and civil rights activist who approaches the open Parisian scene with caution. During her career, Carroll broke racial barriers on the Broadway stage and in the television series “Julia”, which ran from 1969 to 1971. A nurse and single mother, she won an Emmy for Best Female Actor in 1969 and expanded the roles for black actresses on television.
The other is the white actress, Joanne woodward. The Georgian actress and producer is 91 years old and is the oldest living winner of the Oscar for Best Actress for the 1957 film, “The Three Faces of Eve”. She and Newman had been married for three years before the production of Paris Blues. In the film, she plays a single mother from a small town, footless and in search of adventure.
The film brings together the lives of the characters in a graphic way: in the novel, the story presents an artificial arrangement of two interracial couples; instead, the filmmakers opted for a black couple and a white couple on parallel tracks. Poitier is said to have criticized the change and argued for the restoration of the integration image into the original plot.
In revisiting the film today, however, one of its merits is the contrasting relationship between a bourgeois black couple and a bourgeois white couple. Understand that audiences have rarely had the chance to see Poitier or Carroll in romantic roles. They usually played lonely characters: Poitier was always the lone hero like the high school teacher in “To Mister, With Love” – or struggled to assimilate into an interracial relationship like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Carroll played the charming but only single mother in productions like “Julia” or as a hard-pressed welfare mother in the 1974 film, “Claudine”.
In Paris Blues, the romance between Poitier and Carroll – against a backdrop of Paris – is a gold nugget. They discuss love, life, work and politics in the setting of Notre Dame Cathedral and other historic sites. What the film renders is a black romance story on its own terms, with all the promises and contradictions, and without the intervention of a white authority.
At the same time, Newman and Woodward’s parallel relationship is evolving at a different rate. She finds Newman to be an emotionally distant but fascinating lover and musician. What stands out in the film is the fair treatment of sex – a rare parity of class, skill, love, and refreshing culture, even by today’s standards. Viewers can make up their own minds about the meaning and moral of the stories.
In conclusion, Poitier stood out in a rowdy film overlooked by critics of his legacy. The film is available on numerous outlets, including YouTube Fans of films about jazz and American culture should consider it for their