Drama

How Sidney Poitier Taught Us Forgiveness

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala have a battle of wills. Image: Boston Globe
Sidney Poitier vs. Lilia Skala in a battle of wills. Image: Boston Globe

There is something of a miracle in the 1963 drama, Lilies of the Field.

The film, adapted from the 1962 novel by William E. Barrett, stars Sidney Poitier as a traveling carpenter who experiences car trouble in Arizona. Here he meets a strict Order of Eastern European nuns trying to scratch a living out of the dry Arizona soil.

The Mother Superior of this Order (Lilia Skala) bosses around a handful of nuns. She is a humorless, shut-up-and-do-your-work kind of woman who dreams of building a chapel. (She pronounces it “shapple” with her thick Austrian accent.) Poitier, she believes, is a man sent by God to build her church.

Poitier obliges the nuns by patching a leaky roof and fixing a few things on their property, while politely rebuffing Skala’s demands to build a church. However, when a local contractor (Ralph Nelson) insinuates an African American doesn’t have the aptitude for such a project, Poitier decides to prove him wrong. “I’m gonna build me a shappel,” he says with amused determination.

Erecting a structure without materials and labour is an impossible task. But, despite considerable setbacks, Poitier begins to form a chapel in the desert. Building a church out of nothing is miraculous, but it isn’t the Big miracle in this movie.

That would be Poitier’s refusal to murder Skala.

Lilia Skala tells Sidney Poitier how to build a church. Image: Dusted Off
Skala has ideas about the shappel. Image: Dusted Off

Skala’s character is as abrasive as they come. Not only does she belittle Poitier, she refuses to thank him for his hard work, or for providing food, or for teaching them English. Poitier manages to shrug off her grating sarcasm, but Skala doesn’t know when to quit.

In the scene where he finally has it out with her, Poitier enters the “convent” with a heavy box of groceries and finds Skala in a Mood. (Poitier is pressuring her to get bricks and she can’t find a donor.) She picks a fight almost as soon as he steps inside the door.

Skala: “Why do you buy things to eat we do not need?”
Poitier: “Now just a minute. You are very large on religion and all the rest of it. But you don’t even know how to accept a gift from somebody without making them feel small. Small! You follow?”
Skala: “Poor man! His feelings is hurt.”
Poitier: “I’m not twisting your arm for any thank yous, but I’m through feeling small.”

Poitier abruptly leaves the building, packs his belongings and drives away.

It’s a cathartic moment. We (the audience) are tired of Skala pummelling Poitier with her self-righteous anger, and when his vehicle vanishes in a bitter cloud of dust, we think, It’s about time.

Weeks later, Poitier unexpectedly returns. His reappearance shows Skala something she professes to believe, but is unable or unwilling to demonstrate: Forgiveness.

Skala drags Poitier to church. Image: Film Net
Skala drags Poitier to church. Image: Film Net

When Poitier reappears, sporting a flowered shirt and a hangover, a local restauranteur (Stanley Adams) quizzes him about his disappearance.

Adams: “A question. Why?”
Poitier: “Why’d I take off?”
Adams: “No. Why did you come back?”

Good question. Poitier is under no obligation to help these nuns, especially Skala. A person would not blame him for abandoning her in the unrelenting Arizona sun.

But. Poitier’s character is, above all, a humanitarian. He’s aware these nuns are ignored by society as they struggle with their pitiless land. He realizes that for all Skala’s faults, her overarching desire is not to enrich herself. Her goal is to provide the surrounding community with a place of worship.

He also knows if he doesn’t help them, no one will.

Poitier’s work in this film won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the first African American to win this Oscar, and it would be another 38 years before another African American won in this category. (Denzel Washington won for Training Day).

Poitier is not merely an excellent actor who makes us believe in his character. He also makes us believe in the value of forgiveness.

Lilies of the Field: Starring Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Stanley Adams. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by James Poe. United Artists, 1963, 97 mins.

This post is part of the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries!

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36 thoughts on “How Sidney Poitier Taught Us Forgiveness

  1. Splendid stuff. I’ve seen this movie only once but liked it a lot and made a mental note to give it a rewatch somewhere down the line. You’ve reminded me that I haven’t done that yet — thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a beautiful film and your focus on forgiveness is so true and touching.

    My daughter and I were speaking of this movie the other day. My dad, her dad, and her brother all love this movie. It is particularly interesting because my son is autistic/developmentally delayed. He loves movies, mostly animated and mostly classic, but among the few live action classic titles this stands out. It is as if he views Homer Smith as a friend that he is spending time with. It has calmed him since childhood.

    I read the novel once and think this is one of those perfect film adaptations. The actors truly bring something special in each of their roles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this is a terrific film adaptation of the novel. My grandmother had the book and I read it after I saw the movie for the first time. I think I was 10 or 11, but as I was reading I was nodding and saying things like, “Yep. They were right to put that in the movie.”

      As for your son and Homer Smith, I totally get that. Poitier’s character seems like a friend to me, too, and has since I was a kid.

      Like

  3. A lovely commentary that brought back to mind a happy evening spent watching this film with my mom many years ago. It was the first Sidney Poitier film I’d ever seen, and it inspired me to hunt down his older movies, and never miss a new one thereafter. Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely tribute to a memorable performance, actor, role and movie. I enjoyed your focus on his strength of character and heart showing we often don’t know where the strength and kindness come from. It just is.

    Aurora

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “The value of forgiveness.” I never thought about it exactly that way before, but what an uplifting, beautiful message. I loved this movie so much growing up…I have not seen it in so many years. Need to watch again!

    I remember just aching for her to thank him, just once. Though I couldn’t help admiring her for her determination and will.

    What a beautiful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right – a person can’t help but admire Skala’s single-minded character. She is a woman who can move mountains!

      I loved this movie, too, as a kid. I had a bit of a crush on Sidney Poitier because he was handsome and considerate. He also had fabulous chemistry with Skala. Their scenes together are the highlights of this terrific film.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Very nice post, It’s been ages since I saw this and should do again. I loved the one lesson here as you point out, is that you should do good things without expecting thank yous or rewards since, like with this Mother you might never hear them lol. The reward is in the doing! This is such a fun blogathon to read through and host with you!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I saw this movie when I was ten. It was on a double bill with a Russian fantasy film that had been dubbed into English and retitled THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD. LILIES was the better movie, even if I’d been drawn in by the co-feature. The scene I remember most is when the nuns first make breakfast for Poitier not long after his arrival and he chows down several plates of food. I was probably hungry when I saw it and I’m sure I envied him. If only somebody could make ME breakfast like that. I’ve always been drawn to eating scenes in movies because far too often characters will sit down to a full meal and then get into some drama and leave the table not having touched the food. This infuriates me. “Eat first!” I always yell at the screen. So when a character eats his fill like Poitier does here, I’m supremely satisfied.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha! I know exactly what you mean re: characters not eating first. I’m with you! I always like to get the Important Business (eating) out of the way first.

      One of my fave scenes in Lilies/Field is the first time Sidney Poitier orders breakfast at that roadside diner. The way he talks about the hotcakes and beans and orange juice… mmm! Makes me hungry just thinking about it!

      Like

  8. This is a movie that I need to rewatch, because I remember enjoying it a lot (especially Poitier’s performance), but I’ve forgotten many of the details. Thanks for reminding me of it with this great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Forgiveness, an attribute that is sorely lacking in my life which may explain why I have avoided this movie…maybe I just don’t want to learn forgiveness. 😦

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      1. Ooh yes! Loads and loads. My parents “saved” the films and projectors from the junk yard when the change to Video Cassette came about and someone was ruthlessly throwing them out. Was awesome. Sadly the projectors don’t last for ever. But, that was my introduction to the magical world of film! Kelly’s Heroes, The Godfather, Dirty Dozen, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Westworld, Mutiny on the Bounty, Big Jake, Soylent Green, Vera Cruz, The Reivers and the list goes on. I don’t think I’d have the passion for film the way I have now if it wasn’t for those Super 8s!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh, Ruth. I literally laughed out loud when you revealed the “Big miracle.” So true. Even today, knowing the plot so very well, I still want to throttle that nun — although, to be honest, that may stem from my 8 years under their tutelage. That aside, it is a wonderful movie and a great entry for this blogathon. You’ve made me want to head over to Netflix and get a copy. This is one movie I cannot watch too many times.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So Poitier’s carpenter is more of a saint than the nun herself!!
    I had heard of this movie, but have never seen it. For some reason, I though this was to do with a blind girl, I must be confusing it with another Poitier movie.
    Nice review!!!
    Humanity, the best religion in the world, is something badly missing in the modern world!! Sad!!

    Liked by 1 person

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