Tuesday, December 20, 2016

To Sir, With Movies

We’ve lost some major figures lately. Though they made their mark in a variety of fields, their public personas were large enough to ensure that they’d show up in popular movies. Fidel Castro of course appeared in Cuban films, usually as himself. I was also nonplussed to learn, via the invaluable Internet Movie Database, that in 1946 he performed as an extra in a 1946 MGM musical called Holiday in Mexico, in which the U.S. Ambassador's daughter (Jane Powell) falls for a Mexican pianist (Jose Iturbi) old enough to be her grandfather. Who knew? (Castro does not appear in Joe Dante’s 1993 Cuban Missile Crisis comedy, Matinee, but his aura hangs over the film like an invisible apparition.)

Then there’s John Glenn, by far the most telegenic of all the American astronauts. Glenn, as astronaut and as public servant, was no stranger to the movie screen. I can think, right off the bat, of three movies in which he was featured. But Glenn, who was memorialized in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday, deserves a post of his own. Which is why I’ll move on to the death of someone quite a bit more obscure: Ever hear of E.R. Braithwaite?

Braithwaite, who just passed away at the ripe old age of 104, had a busy life, serving as an educator, an author, and a diplomat. Born in what was then British Guinea in 1912, he was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II, and graduated from posh Cambridge University with a degree in physics. It was while job-hunting that he – a black man -- first became aware of institutionalized racism in Britain. Struggling to find a job  and a place to live, he ended up accepting a teaching post in a decrepit secondary school in the East End of London. His students, though mostly white, were a down-at-the-heels bunch, many of them hostile to blacks, but over the nine years of his teaching career he gradually earned their respect. Out of that experience came a memoir, 1959’s To Sir, With Love.

Naturally, there was a Hollywood ending. In the Sixties, audiences were hungry for films in which a noble black man (usually Sidney Poitier) finds love and respect. To Sir, With Love became one of three hit films that made Poitier the hottest box office attraction of the year 1967. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he found love with a beautiful young white woman, and earned her father’s blessing for the interracial union. In the Heat of the Night (1967’s Best Picture winner) showed him, as a Philly police detective, solving a murder case in a backwards Southern town, and then winning the respect of the good-ol’-boy local sheriff. To Sir, With Love, by far the sappiest of the three, gave him the opportunity to tame a roomful of young British hooligans by teaching fair play, manners, and how to make a salad. (The film also spawned a pop hit, sung by the then-popular Lulu, who played one of the students.) 
Author Braithwaite was by no means enamored of the film version of his story. According to his obituary, he was annoyed that the film played down his interracial romance with a fellow teacher. And he understandably found Poitier’s approach to his students in the film overly simplistic. Though the film character based on his life wins over students by such stunts as taking them on an impromptu museum trip, Braithwaite was quoted as griping that “the movie made it look like fun and games." But that’s what Hollywood is about: fun and games, right?

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