Fifty years ago, “Lilies of the Field”, starring Sidney Poitier, reached movie theatres, and looking back, this gratifying story really was ahead of its time.
Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for his classic performance, so now, in 2013, “Lilies of the Field” is my classic movie of the week!
“Lilies of the Field” (1963) 4 / 5 stars – Have you ever mismanaged expectations in a work setting?
All of sudden, you realize someone assigned you much more work than you originally bargained.
Unfortunately and personally, I’ve been there before, but – with the help of an understanding manager – original assumptions of deliverables can be reset to something more reasonable.
In “Lilies of the Field”, Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) somehow mismanaged work expectations, and unfortunately finds himself without an advocate to bail him out.
In addition, he faces two more obstacles: a major communication gap, and the complexities of religion play upon his conscience.
Adding up these three factors, Homer is stuck doing a hefty job.
It all begins in the Arizona desert.
Homer’s car radiator needs water, and he stops at a small commune with five nuns.
Oddly, they speak fluent German, but do understand enough English to know Homer’s request.
He says, “My car is thirsty. Can I please have some water?”
He pumps enough water from their well and plans on immediately leaving, but Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) asks – with a stern German accent – if he could stay and do some handy work around their property.
With only a few dollars in his wallet, he decides to stick around for one day to earn some bucks while also helping the sisters.
Somehow – due to the aforementioned three factors – Mother Maria signs up Homer to build a chapel.
That’s right, a full-fledged church!
Never mind Homer has never built a structure like a chapel, but he supposedly was on his way to somewhere else, as he repeatedly tells everyone who asks, “I’m just passing through.”
Nevertheless, Mother Maria drives a hard bargain, but the reality is: she doesn’t take “No” for an answer.
The basic premise of director Ralph Nelson’s film is a simple one, but the relationship between the nuns (Mother Maria, Sisters Gertrude, Agnes, Albertine, and Elizabeth) and Homer is priceless.
Taking place one year prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, race relations in the U.S. – at the time – were contentious at best.
This was a time when drinking fountains in the deep south were labeled “White” and “Colored”, but the nuns showed absolutely no prejudice towards Homer.
Homer is black, but he doesn’t notice any discriminatory behavior.
The nuns like Homer right away.
He eats at their dinner table, exchanges pleasantries and is treated like an equal in every way.
Now, Mother Maria does her best drill sergeant impression – and repeated calls Homer Smith, “Schmidt” – on a daily basis, but Homer knows it’s not because the color of his skin.
She’s bossy and demanding with everyone!
The film moves well as Homer tries to find his footing in this new community and his work schedule.
How much will he be paid?
When will his job be completed?
Why is he taking on this job again?
Outside the job, he gives English classes to the German nuns and teaches them a Baptist religious song as well.
Poitier – who won a Best Actor Oscar for his work – charms the sisters, the church’s patrons and the movie-going audience.
As Poitier navigates his “everyman” performance, he generates plenty of empathy, humor and good feelings.
In addition, racism is almost completely void from the picture except for one degrading address from a white character, but Homer does not take it lying down.
You’ll also notice Homer’s general camaraderie with the local Hispanic community, and stepping back from the film, it’s seems remarkable to witness such a color blind movie from this time in our nation’s history.
“Lilies of the Field” is not a masterpiece, but it’s very entertaining, and – considering the “expectations” of race relations in 1963 – it’s just as refreshing.
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