Sidney Poitier’s first big role was also the film that finally showed America just how ugly their racist ideals really were.
Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights the 1950 film noir No Way Out, which features Sidney Poitier’s first major screen role.
In the 1940s and 1950s, film noir provided a harrowing critique of American society. Going even deeper, though, was the niche subgenre of “social message” film noir. Examples within this group, such as the classic Crossfire, balance thrilling action and moody aesthetics with commentary on specific issues. They are also very much of their time when it comes to politics, but the undertones of their messages still resonate with audiences today.
No Way Out is the best of the social message subset, yet it is often overlooked in discussions of film noir. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, the latter in his first major screen role, the 1950 movie brought the subject of racism into Hollywood cinema in an explicit way. More than 70 years later, there is still so much to gather from this little-remembered 20th Century Fox release and its place in history.
It began as a story by writer Lesser Samuels, who drew inspiration from his son-in-law’s experience as a young doctor working with Black medical students. Samuels saw the paradoxical lives of well-educated African Americans: “They live in an economic and social no man’s land,” he explained, “from which, at the moment, there seems no way out.”
In the original draft, a white doctor observed the unique struggles Black doctors have to overcome to be successful. However, that was too far removed for Mankiewicz and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who were both well-versed in examining American social issues closely on screen. Zanuck, for example, had previously produced movies that addressed antisemitism (Gentlemen’s Agreement), mental illness (The Snake Pit), and racism (Pinky).
With Zanuck’s eye for weaving social and political issues into entertaining stories and Mankiewicz’s impeccable talent for realistic dialogue, No Way Out became something audiences had never seen before. Zanuck wanted a Black main character and demanded enough time be spent focused on the everyday lives of middle-class Black families. He and Mankiewicz agreed they wouldn’t shy away from depicting the ugliness racism can take, no matter how vile or violent. This was a daring promise, considering it was dangerous for Hollywood to criticize American society so openly after World War II.
In the movie, Poitier plays Luther Brooks, a young doctor in residence at a county hospital. His supervisor, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), treats him like all his other new doctors, throwing him into any medical dilemma. However, due to the anxiety of being the only Black doctor in the hospital, despite being extremely hard-working and diligent, Luther is often unsure of himself.
This comes to be an issue when Luther is sent to care for two petty thieves with bullet wounds in their legs. Brothers Ray (Widmark) and Johnny (Dick Paxton) Biddle are from the slums of Beaver Canal, where poor white families are convinced their problems stem from Black citizens in the neighboring section of town. Despite Johnny’s troubling symptoms of something affecting his brain and not his leg wound, Ray refuses to allow Luther to treat him. He heckles Luther with slurs as the doctor tries to keep his composure and perform a spinal tap on Johnny.
Then Johnny dies during the procedure, and Ray is convinced his brother was actually murdered by the Black doctor. Luther fears for his job and his life, as his insecurity causes him to believe he may have indeed made a medical error in his diagnosis. The only way to prove what killed Johnny is with an autopsy, but the Biddle family refuses to allow one.
Luther and Wharton seek out Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie (Linda Darnell), for permission to perform the autopsy, but Ray has already convinced her that Luther and the rest of the world are out to get people like them. She and the rest of the Biddle crew then incite a riot over Johnny’s death, targeting the Black neighborhood.
Fearing for the safety of his family and his community, Luther turns himself in and confesses to murdering Johnny, if only to force an autopsy that proves his innocence. This doesn’t convince Ray, of course, but as he plans to attack Luther and Wharton, Edie has a change of heart, realizing that she really doesn’t belong with the Beaver Canal troublemakers. She saves Luther, who refuses to kill Ray, even in all his hatred. In one of the best final line deliveries ever, Luther tells Ray, in a deadpan voice, “Don’t cry, white boy, you’re gonna live.”
No Way Out is known for being an early case of an explicit depiction of racism, but it also shows how liberal attitudes and colorblindness do more harm than good. Dr. Wharton touts his ability to treat Luther as any other medical student, even claiming to be pro- “white, black, or polka-dotted.” Wharton’s boss points out that treating all people the same is well and good in their profession, but the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.
In claiming to be colorblind, Wharton fails to realize when Luther is in danger because of his race. He insists that Luther continue to work in the jail ward of the hospital and treat Ray, despite knowing that these patients are not accepting of people of color. He ignores the extra weight put on Luther’s shoulders as he works, failing to really care for him as an employee, and as a friend. When Luther is found innocent, and after Ray escapes police custody, Wharton goes on vacation, leaving the aftermath of the situation for Luther and everyone else to figure out. He may not mean to put Luther in peril, but his way of thinking inadvertently does.
The slurs, the race riot, and the criticism of American society all contributed to bans on No Way Out across the US in 1950. In Chicago, racial tensions were very high over zoning laws, and police feared audiences would find inspiration in the movie. They required a whole three minutes to be cut before it could be shown in the city.
Southern theaters unsurprisingly refused to show it at all, and several states had temporary bans, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Zanuck and Mankiewicz knew this would be the case, as the Production Code Administration tried to convince them to cut the riot scenes to appease conservative viewers before the release of the movie. They refused, and the box office numbers suffered because of it.
There was significant critical acclaim, however, particularly for Poitier’s performance. Many reviews recognized his poised but powerful presence on screen. Despite his fourth billing, critics understood Poitier was the true lead in No Way Out. They also responded well to the frank picture of racism that the movie paints. Ebony magazine called it “the first out-and-out blast against racial discrimination in everyday American life.” There was finally an African-American character who was not there for comic relief or to simply sing and dance then disappear.
But praise of the movie was not universal, even conservative and racist outcry aside. Lillian Scott of The Chicago Defender, an African-American paper, wrote: “It is, of course, a great relief to see Hollywood portraying Negroes as highly intelligent, trained people for a change. But why do these superior qualities always come packaged in an overly receptive, humorless individual?”
Luther’s character, docile and well-mannered, is indeed a safe creation for No Way Out. Even though it had been the most unapologetic in a film to date didn’t mean there wasn’t imperfection in the movie’s depiction of racism and an African-American man’s experience post-World War II.
It was, after all, written and directed by white men, from their perspective, even though they wanted to focus on a Black character. Problems were present in the making of the movie as well. Black actors were not treated as fairly as white actors. Mankiewicz had to stop production while filming the riot scenes because the Black extras were protesting unequal pay compared to the white extras.
Black actresses had white makeup artists and hairstylists who did not know how to do their hair or work with darker complexions. Crew outwardly spoke ill of working with the Black extras and of Poitier’s “dark skin.” As revolutionary as this movie may have been, the times did not change off-screen. The filmmakers meant to connect with the Black community’s struggles with their movie, but they were not exactly upholding that in their everyday lives.
As we watch No Way Out today, its ideas of progressive representation of racism feel dated in a lot of ways. We can see the decisions that filmmakers made in order to appease the powers that be and the limits of their own morals at the time. Poitier’s screen debut should not be thought of as just that. It is a shining example of his talent as an actor.
Today, No Way Out allows us to see how representation has evolved or not evolved over the years. If this was the first to depict the ugliness of racism, then why are we still limiting Black characters the same way Luther was in 1950? Important older movies like this can still thrill and entertain modern audiences, but they can also reveal a lot of what we still need to work on as a society as well as what Hollywood still needs to work on in shedding light on these problems.
Related Topics: Beyond the Classics