by Jill White faculty advisor
Filmed during the Civil Rights movement, Guy Green’s “A Patch of Blue,” focuses unblinkingly on the relationship between a black man and a blind white girl. It is all the more remarkable for the critical and commercial success it earned upon its release. The film won co-star Shelley Winters her second Oscar and cemented Sidney Poitier’s position as a bankable leading man in Hollywood.
Selina D’Arcey, played by newcomer Elizabeth Hartmann, was blinded at the age of five when she was accidentally hit with acid by her brawling parents. Since that time, she has led a reclusive life in a tiny apartment with her mother, Rose-Ann (Winters) and her grandfather, Ole Pa (veteran actor Wallace Ford in his last screen role). While Ole Pa drinks and Rose-Ann turns tricks, Selina supplements the family income by stringing beaded necklaces.
One day when Selina’s employer comes to drop off the materials for the necklaces, she convinces him to bring her to a nearby park for the day so she can string her beads outside under a tree. He agrees, and promises to bring her home in the evening when he comes to collect the finished necklaces. It’s Selina’s first instinctive step toward escape from her oppressive environment.
During her days in the park, Selina befriends Gordon Ralfe (Poitier), a night-shift reporter who is impressed with the girl’s quiet strength. Gordon takes an interest in the ways that blind people manage their disabilities — skills that Selina has never been taught — and begins helping her to become more independent. Eventually, he teaches her to count her steps and to listen to the noises and smells around her so she can make it to the park on her own.
The film’s main artistic question — is love blind? — is saved from cliché by the superb performances and unsentimental writing. In one pivotal moment, Selina remarks matter-of-factly that she’s not a child because she’s already been “done over,” her term for the rape she suffered at the hands of one of her mother’s clients. In this moment and others, she breaks Gordon’s heart, compelling him to find a way to get her out of her abusive home.
Gordon opens worlds for Selina, who naturally comes to love him more than anyone she’s ever known. His skin color is meaningless to her, but is an everyday reality for him. Instead of pursuing a happily-ever-after ending, Gordon more realistically focuses on finding the girl an education, her only way out of the life of prostitution that her mother has planned for her.
Green shot “A Patch of Blue” in black and white, though color film had been available for nearly thirty years. His choice underscores the brutal racial struggles happening in America at the time and gives a nod to the lack of color in Selina’s life. The title itself is a reference to the only thing that Selina can remember seeing — the sky.
When watching the film, it’s critical to remember the time during which it was released. That the filmmakers dared to cast as the lead an educated black man — who is downright worldly compared to the uneducated Selina — and have him feel compassion for a white girl during a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many places is a testament to the courage that artists often show in the face of injustice.
This piece is considered a “standard” article in our print edition.
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