Sidney Poitier and the New York Film Renaissance
By Richard Koszarski
I have been writing and researching the history of motion picture production in New York since the 1970s. Not the image of New York, but the way our local cultural and historical traditions interacted with broader industry trends to create a unique regional film style. There is a New York style of jazz, or rap, just as there is a style for Los Angeles. New York modernists created abstract expressionism at the same time that local filmmakers were pioneering a new approach to their own medium. No one questions the possibility of regional influence in music and art, and I would argue that you still see the traces even in the most institutionalized media. But until recently the dominance of Hollywood seemed so pervasive that as far as movies were concerned, the issue never came up.
Critics had identified a postwar renaissance in New York film production, but no one could explain why this had happened here. It wasn’t because things were cheaper back east. There were no tax credits in those days, and the weather wasn’t any better than in Hollywood. On screen, The Naked City told the world that there were eight million stories here, but you could say that about a lot of interesting places. Far more important was the fact that New York had the wherewithal to tell those stories itself. It had studios, equipment houses, and trained cadres of union workers, as well as Broadway and Madison Avenue. Although the production of theatrical features had long since been delegated to a factory town out west, local filmmaking skills never did die out. Instead, writers, directors, actors, and technicians cornered the nonfiction and nontheatrical markets and discovered marginalized audiences ignored by the Hollywood majors.
Most books about postwar American cinema look to California and tell us in detail just how the business model of the Hollywood studio system came apart at the seams. “Keep ‘Em in the East”: Kazan, Kubrick, and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance looks elsewhere and tells a different story: how East Coast filmmakers, working the margins of the industry, laid the groundwork for the unexpected revolution that swept up all of American cinema just a few years later.
What surprised me was just how marginal the roots of this new wave really were: not so much Broadway and “golden age” television (although they also factored in) but documentaries, very low-budget indie features, and race movies
What surprised me was just how marginal the roots of this new wave really were: not so much Broadway and “golden age” television (although they also factored in) but documentaries, very low-budget indie features, and race movies. Race movies—“all Black” films produced for segregated African American audiences—are a defunct genre, something like the Negro leagues in baseball. Historians usually see these films as a world apart, a separate cinema best understood as an artifact of Jim Crow, running parallel to the rest of the American film industry but not really a part of it.
New York had been a center of race film production ever since Oscar Micheaux arrived in 1920. The genre flourished with the coming of talkies, but wartime shortages of everything from film stock to electrical equipment brought production to a halt in the 1940s (similar problems affected another regional product, the Yiddish picture). Yet it was a sudden surge in the postwar market for race films that kick-started the revival of all theatrical filmmaking in New York.
When ex-New Yorkers Mark Hellinger and Jules Dassin returned here to film Naked City in 1947, they did not find the production wasteland that most general histories describe. Instead, over the previous thirty months, local producers had shot at least twenty feature-length race movies, as well as an uncounted number of short musical reels. The films boasted top stars like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway, and offered newcomers like Ruby Dee and William Greaves their first real film credits. What they didn’t have were decent budgets and any distribution outside the meager circuit of segregated theaters. Although film industry trade papers tracked this business, the films themselves were invisible to the audiences courted by high-profile Hollywood producers. Making them required the same studio facilities and trained personnel as any other part of the local film economy, and the industry suddenly found itself back in the feature picture business. Mothballed studios in Fort Lee and the Bronx were dusted off, while technicians previously employed on army training films learned to combine the lessons of documentary production with the requirements of big-screen entertainment.
Something new would come from this, but race films would never be part of it, having lost their audience almost entirely by the 1950s. Still, these marginal genres—documentaries and low-budget features included—should be understood as a very successful ad hoc incubator. Director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer Boris Kaufman would both use low-profile films like these to muscle their way into the big time.
As a young actor Poitier had a toe in all of these marginal genres.
Which brings us to Sidney Poitier. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and in the course of researching this book, I discovered that as a young actor Poitier had a toe in all of these marginal genres. He describes in his autobiography working as an extra in at least one race movie, Sepia Cinderella. He isn’t credited and I can’t spot him, but he seemed pretty certain about it. Just a few years later he was a big enough name to costar in Go Man Go, the story of Abe Saperstein and the Harlem Globetrotters (Ruby Dee played his wife). A quintessential New York feature, Go Man Go combines elements of the Yiddish picture (Jewish wedding ritual) with the race movie (musical cameo from Slim Gaillard). The fact that it was directed by esteemed Hollywood cameraman James Wong Howe, graylisted at the time due to his wife’s political affiliations, is not atypical of an independent feature being made in New York in those days. It is also worth noting that this was the first feature picture handled by a major American distributor (United Artists) directed by someone who was not a white man, or the occasional white woman.
Still, Poitier’s first real screen acting seems to have been in army training films shot at the Signal Corps Pictorial Center in Astoria. He had a bit as a patient in Time Out: Occupational Therapy in Tuberculosis (1949) and a featured role that same year in From Whence Cometh My Help? Poitier plays a soldier being counseled by an army chaplain after the death of his young son. When I interviewed him he said that he considered the film a kind of screen test, but was so dismayed when he finally saw himself on screen that “it almost sent me back to the Caribbean.”
That’s the sort of self-deprecating funny story many Hollywood legends tell about their early days. But when I first saw the film I thought it showed something very different. The performance seemed to pop off the screen, standing out in an otherwise ordinary instructional documentary. Poitier considered it the equivalent of student work, but what did audiences think of it at the time? Hard to know with an army training film. Then I discovered, in a mimeographed newsletter published by Signal Corps veterans, a first-person account by one of the film’s cameramen, Richard Allen. Allen discusses a single moment, when Poitier lifts his face and says, “Why’d God do this to me, Chaplain?”
Suddenly, to my utter amazement, a torrent of tears cascaded down my cheeks, as if someone had turned on a faucet. Cringing with embarrassment I turned away from the camera, quickly running the back of my hand over my wet face. I found myself staring at a group of grips, prop-men, and electricians, all of whom were sniffling, coughing, staring up at the rafters, or reaching for a handkerchief. We were all profoundly embarrassed and caught off guard. Suddenly everyone got busy changing lights, moving furniture, doing anything to avoid my tear-filled, blinking eyes. It is important to note that this was only a REHEARSAL, and the young actor spoke only ONE LINE and broke up a whole crew of seasoned veterans.
Poitier joked that his performance almost made him give up acting. But Allen admits that he was the one who gave it up. Overwhelmed by experiencing this “touch of genius,” he dropped his own acting ambitions and turned instead to a career behind the camera.
Richard Koszarski is professor emeritus of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University, and the author of “Keep ’Em in the East”: Kazan, Kubrick, and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance.