A Patch of Blue (1965) is an almost perfect example of Hollywood’s mainstream approach to controversial social issues.
Which is not to say that it’s a perfect movie. Today it appears quaintly dated. But in the mid-‘60s it was the right movie at the right time.
The premise of British director Guy Green’s screenplay (adapted from Elizabeth Kata’s novel), finds a naive blind girl named Selina (Elizabeth Hartman in her first role) meeting a nice young man, Gordon (Sidney Poitier), in a Los Angeles park.
They rendezvous every day to talk.
Being visually impaired, Selina has no idea that her new friend is black. (Told that she’ll have to wait until dark for a ride, she replies “Dark’s nothing to me. I’m always in the dark.”)
All she knows is that after enduring abuse at home, here’s a person who treats her well. She falls in love.
For Gordon, who is all too aware of the dangers inherent in their friendship, Selina provides a chance to do good. He’s appalled to find that she’s uneducated, cannot read Braille and is practically a slave to her mother; he decides to show her what the bigger world is like.
The problem is Selina’s mom, Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters), a white trash prostitute who accidentally blinded the girl when she was small. Rose-Ann is a raging racist who goes ballistic at the thought of a Negro touching her daughter.
Patch came out at the height of the American civil rights movement and is overflowing with good, liberal intentions. In Poitier it featured perhaps the only black actor in Hollywood who would be readily accepted by mainstream white audiences; in fact in films like Lilies of the Field (for which he won a best actor Academy Award) he specialized in decent, non-threatening black protagonists.
And then there’s the obvious but still powerful metaphor at its core: If you can’t see skin color, you have no choice but to judge people on their other qualities. It's sort of like Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech translated into cinema.
A Patch of Blue was a solid commercial hit (despite the refusal of some theaters in the South to book it) but was not a critical favorite.
“Every year there are a few ambitious performances so spectacularly bad that there are immediate cries for the performer to get an Oscar,” critic Pauline Kael wrote, “and every year or two one of these performances does indeed get its Oscar. Who can deny that Shelley Winters earned hers in A Patch of Blue?”
Actually, Patch had a big presence at the Academy Awards that year. Winters took home a supporting actress Oscar (her second) for her hateful performance. Newcomer Hartmann was nominated as lead actress, and the film was also nominated for art direction, cinematography and musical score.
Poitier won the BAFTA (the Brit version of the Oscar) for best actor in a non-British film. Director Green is hardly remembered today, but he was a very busy fellow in the mid-‘60s. He started out as a cinematographer, winning an Oscar for his work on David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946); his other Hollywood titles include The Magus, Light in the Piazza, Diamond Head, Luther, Once Is Not Enough and A Matter of Innocence.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.