Sidney Poitier (1927-2022): A Tribute to Homer Smith

COMMENTARY: Sidney Poitier’s pioneering, iconic role in ‘Lilies of the Field’

Sidney Poitier during the filming of “Lilies of the Field” in 1963
Sidney Poitier during the filming of “Lilies of the Field” in 1963 (photo: AFP via Getty Images)

Actor Sidney Poitier died Jan. 6 in California. Much undoubtedly will be written about his pioneering role as a black actor in Hollywood. I want to view his achievement through the lens of one film: The Lilies of the Field.

Some might claim that mine is a narrow aperture, but Lilies made Poitier the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best actor. He earned it for his portrayal of Homer Smith in that 1963 film. He also won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture. 

Homer Smith is a black itinerant handyman making his way across the desert American Southwest. In times when car radiators occasionally needed water refills, Smith pulls into a house full of foreign-born nuns. All he planned for was to pump some water and continue on his way. The plans of Providence (and tough nuns) are sometimes different.

The nuns are a group of refugees from communist Central Europe, who neither speak English too well nor integrated into their surroundings. Mother Maria, the mother superior, is the no-nonsense epitome of what an American female religious once was. Through a little conversation, she learns of Schmidt’s (she can never say Smith’s) handyman talents, and gets him to patch their leaking roof. Smith, who wanted to hit the road, sees a chance to make a few extra dollars from a few hours work, so up goes the tar paper.

When done, Smith is ready to be paid and be off. Mother Maria, on the other hand, sees him as a God-sent answer to her dreams to build a “shapel.” She keeps him around for supper, then the night, etc. etc.

The truth is Mother Maria has no money. The title of the film is a riff on Matthew 6:28-29 when, in good Protestant fashion, Baptist Smith and Catholic Maria trade in dueling Bible verses — he cites the Lord’s injunction that the laborer is worth his wages, she follows Christ’s admonition about not worrying about money (that she doesn’t have), like the “lilies of the field.”

Gradually, Smith lets himself get sucked into Mother Maria’s plans, including driving the nuns to Mass, celebrated at a distance on the tailgate of a truck in the back of a gas station. The Germanic nuns and the Hispanic locals gather for Mass celebrated by an Irish-American priest, while Baptist Smith repairs to the local café for his only substantial breakfast of the week, befriending the Mexican owner who becomes his link to the local community.

Over time, Smith and Mother Maria overcome barriers, those erected by others and put up by themselves. Smith takes a part-time job with a local Anglo-American construction company, whose boss calls Smith “boy” and is surprised Black people can skillfully handle heavy earth-moving equipment. The Mexicans begin to trust the newcomer and eventually make themselves ready to work with him. 

Smith discovers he can’t build a “shapel” all by himself and learns to engage their talents. The nuns learn English — and black Protestant church music. And, in the end, a “shapel” is built, Homer Smith proudly signing his name on the pediment under the steeple cross, “visible only to God.”

The job being done, Smith finally drives away from the stop he made to get some water for his radiator.

All our talk about “diversity” and “inclusiveness” notwithstanding, much of that human bonding happens in this film without all the talk and virtue-signaling about it. The nuns begin to fit in their community. The Mexicans are empowered by self-help, discovering they can do something meaningful for their community, their poverty notwithstanding. Mr. Ashton, the construction company owner, discovers he needs a “foreman,” not a “boy.”

Lilies was released as the American Civil Rights movement was coming to a head, with major civil rights legislation to be enacted within the next two years. Set in the Southwest, Lilies made the point that racism was not just a Southern phenomenon, but it also made the point that there were lots of people on the peripheries of the American Dream. Those German nuns were first watched by moviegoers whose husbands and fathers had gone to Germany in World War II. 

Lilies also didn’t make the point of group victimization but of individual empowerment, of recognition that one had dignity and could have agency, be it a black itinerant handyman or the proud Mexican family that offers their heirloom chandelier as a light fixture for the “shapel.” The nuns never mistreat or look down on Smith, at least certainly not on account of his race: one suspects Mother Maria would have exploited any competent handyman who could have realized her “shapel” dream, regardless of race, creed, or color. 

To me, the key lesson of Lilies is everyone’s ability to learn to see and think differently about things, situations, and people. That’s how real change, real conversion happens. After all, conversion is meta-noein, “to think differently, to change one’s mind.”

Let’s say straightaway that Hollywood hasn’t made a film like Lilies in a long time. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Deep Throat, the first of a string of pornographic films some critics have branded as “porn chic.” It is also the golden anniversary of Ben, which is a horror film about a pet rat who protects its owner. In a decade and a half, we went from Ben Hur about Christians to Lilies to Ben about rodents. 

I leave it to film critics to evaluate globally the career of Sidney Poitier. For me, I’ll always see him as a man of dignity with the very common name, Homer Smith.