Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Classics: A Review of A Patch of Blue By Lauren Ennis

Friendship truly is colorblind
The 1960’s was a time of upheaval and extreme division in America, as long held traditions of the staus quo were challenged by the innovations of a new generation. One of the greatest struggles of this decade was the struggle of African Americans to attain the same basic rights as their white counterparts; the Civil Rights Movement. One film explores the Civil Rights Movement from behind the headlines and offers insight into the simple lives of people determined to live with dignity despite the disadvantages life has put in their way; A Patch of Blue. Through the simplicity of its story and the nuance of its characterizations, this film became a truly groundbreaking work that showed the absurdity of racism and the importance of friendship in a way that audiences on both sides of the divide could relate to.

The story begins with blind teen Selina D’Arcy living in a tenement in a New York slum with her prostitute mother, Roseanne (Shelley Winters), and her alcoholic grandfather, Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). Although she is nearly eighteen years old, Selina’s life is completely confined to the family’s cramped apartment, which she has rarely left since she went blind at age five. Selina’s activities are restricted to stringing beads, which Roseanne sells to supplement the household’s meager income, doing chores throughout the apartment, and staying out of the volatile Roseanne’s way.  One day, Selina convinces Ole Pa to take her to the park on his way to work, promising that she will still complete her daily bead work. The outing proves to be life altering for her, as she is exposed to the simple pleasures of life in the outside world and meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier), a young black man who becomes the first friend she has made since childhood. While Gordon’s brief conversation with Selina at first seems to be an isolated incident, he quickly takes an interest in her plight when he realizes the severity of the neglect and abuse she suffers at home. The two become fast friends, meeting for several hours at the park every day until he must leave to work at his night shift job and she must reluctantly return home. Selina begins to rely upon her friendship with Gordon, and after he learns of how she lost her sight when she was hit with a beer bottle during a domestic dispute and was later raped by one of her mother’s clients, Gordon becomes determined to help her find a better life. He begins by trying to help her move beyond her circumstances through teaching her to function outside of the confines of her apartment with such simple actions as taking her to the grocery store, teaching her how to cook at his apartment, and taking her on long walks around the park. Through Gordon’s help, Selina begins to achieve independence, but finds her newfound freedom threatened by the resistance she finds at home from Roseanne. The situation finally reaches its breaking point when Roseanne decides to move the family out of the apartment in order to open her own brothel, and end Selina’s friendship with Gordon in the process. Ultimately, Selina is forced to choose between the uncertainty of an independent life without her family and returning to the abuse and dependency that she has grown accustomed to.

Shelley Winters even puts Joan Crawford to shame
While numerous films have tackled racism before and since the release of A Patch of Blue, few have been able to do so in such a sensitive and relevant way. While the film could have easily resorted to the tried route of reiterating the obvious contrasts between the ignorance of racism and humanity of tolerance, it instead lets the characters tell their story and allows the audience to make their own conclusions. For instance, while Roseanne is a detestable character, she is contrasted by Ole Pa, who tries to alleviate Selina’s misery but is too consumed by his own addiction to make any significant difference in her life. Similarly, while Gordon is a model of decency, his brother, Mark (Ivan Dixon), proves to be just as racist as Roseanne and is unable to understand how Gordon could be compelled to help a white girl, regardless of how disadvantaged she is. The contrast between the characters shows a full spectrum of attitudes that is as complex as those that are present in the real world, making the story truly realistic. This refreshing realism in turn allows the story to unfold with a nuance and subtlety that is far more engaging than the heavy handed speeches or obvious plot points that films about race and tolerance often rely upon.

The film’s cast turns in uniformly excellent performances that show each character as more than a mere type and draw audiences in to the complicated world of poverty, abuse, and racism that the characters inhabit. Elizabeth Hartman’s debut is a truly outstanding performance as she alternates between Selina’s adult experiences and child-like naiveté, and effectively portrays Selina’s blindness without letting her character’s disability define her performance. Sidney Poitier‘s Gordon is an excellent contrast to the harsh world of the D’Arcy’s apartment, with his usual mix of stoicism and charm making Gordon a symbol of the decency, intelligence, and compassion that are so lacking in Selina’s life. Shelley Winters’ is nothing short of dynamite as the short tempered tart, Roseanne, and truly deserved the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that she won for capturing the hopelessness and ignorance of Roseanne’s wasted life. Wallace Ford aptly portrays the weakness and helplessness that addiction reduces even the most well-meaning of people to in his role as Ole Pa, and Ivan Dixon excellently shows the bitterness that can consume people after years of adversity in his performance as Mark.

While its story may be simple, A Patch of Blue remains one of the most effective and compelling films to explore the issue of race in America. The story’s straight forward approach allows the narrative to stand on its own and makes its point without forcing views or ideas onto its audience. The exemplary performances of the cast bring the story to life in a way that is truly relatable and remains relevant over forty years after its initial release. For an intelligent film that shows the power of decency and friendship in the face of adversity, look no further than A Patch of Blue.

Who knew that the supermarket could be such fun?!


  1. Sounds like you enjoyed watching and reviewing this more then I enjoyed watching & reviewing "The Black Klansman". And oh Sidney Portier, you're our Parents equivalent of Morgan Freeman.

  2. He so is! He even beat Freeman to the whole teacher movie racket with To Sir With Love

  3. Thanks for the lovely review, this movie deserves to be seen by more people...

  4. This really helped, thanks a lot !