Sidney Poitier’s first major role was also the film that finally showed America how ugly their racist ideals really were.
By Emily Kubincanek · Published on November 21, 2021
Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old films and explores what makes them memorable. In this episode, she highlights the 1950 film noir No Way Out, which shows Sidney Poitier’s first major film role.
In the 1940s and 1950s, film noir gave a shocking critique of American society. Even deeper, however, went the niche subgenre of “social message” film noir. Examples within this group, such as the classic Herring, balances exciting action and humorous aesthetics with comments on specific topics. They are also 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 subgroup of social messages, but it is often overlooked in discussions of film noir. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and participates Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, the latter in his first major film role, the 1950 film brought the subject of racism into the Hollywood cinema in an explicit way. More than 70 years later, there is still so much to pick from this little-remembered 20th Century Fox release and its place in history.
It began as a story by the author Less Samuels, who drew inspiration from his son-in-law’s experience as a young doctor working with black medical students. Samuel saw the paradoxical life of well-educated African Americans: “They live in an economically and socially no-man’s land,” he explained, “from which there is currently no way out.”
In the original draft, a white doctor observed the unique battles black doctors must overcome to be successful. However, it was too far 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 films addressing anti-Semitism (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 the audience had never seen before. Zanuck wanted a black protagonist and demanded that enough time be spent focusing on everyday life for middle-class black families. He and Mankiewicz agreed that they would not shy away from portraying the ugliness that racism can take, no matter how vile or violent. This was a daring promise, given that it was dangerous for Hollywood to criticize American society so openly after World War II.
In the film, Poitier plays Luther Brooks, a young doctor who lives in a county hospital. His supervisor, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), treats him like all his other new doctors and throws him into any medical dilemma. But because of the fear of being the only black doctor in the hospital, despite being extremely hard-working and diligent, Luther is often insecure about himself.
This becomes a problem as Luther is sent to take care of two petty thieves with gunshot wounds to the legs. Brothers Ray (Widmark) and Johnny (Dick Paxton) Biddle comes from the slums of the Beaver Canal, where poor white families are convinced that their problems stem from black citizens in the adjacent part of town. Despite Johnny’s worrying symptoms of something affecting his brain and not his leg ulcers, Ray refuses to allow Luther to treat him. He taunts Luther with difficulty while the doctor tries to maintain the overview and perform a spinal pressure on Johnny.
Then Johnny dies during the procedure, and Ray is convinced that his brother was actually murdered by the black doctor. Luther fears for his job and his life as his insecurity leads him to believe that he may have actually made a medical mistake 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 to a revolt over Johnny’s death, targeting the Black Quarter.
Fearing for the safety of his family and community, Luther reports and admits to having murdered Johnny, if only to force an autopsy to prove his innocence. This, of course, does not convince Ray, but as he plans to attack Luther and Wharton, Edie changes his mind and realizes that she really does not belong in the Beaver Canal troublemakers. She saves Luther, who refuses to kill Ray, even in all his hatred. In one of the best deliveries on the last line ever, Luther says to Ray in a deadpan voice, “Do not cry, white boy, you will live.”
No way out is known to be an early case of an explicit depiction of racism, but it also shows how liberal attitudes and color blindness do more harm than good. Dr. Wharton highlights his ability to treat Luther like any other medical student and even claims to be pro- “white, black, or dotted.” Wharton’s boss points out that it’s good and good to treat all people equally in their professions, but the rest of the world does not work that way.
By claiming to be color blind, Wharton does not understand when Luther is in danger because of his race. He insists that Luther continue to work in the hospital’s prison ward and treat Ray, despite knowing that these patients do not accept colored people. He ignores the extra weight placed on Luther’s shoulders while working, not really caring for him as an employee and as a friend. When Luther is found not guilty, and after Ray escapes from police custody, Wharton goes on vacation, leaving behind the situation that Luther and everyone else can figure out. He may not mean to put Luther in danger, but it does make his way of thinking unintentionally.
The small words, racial riots, and criticisms of American society all contributed to the ban No way out across the United States in 1950. In Chicago, racial tensions were very high over zoning laws, and police feared audiences would find inspiration in the film. They required a full three minutes to be clipped before it could be shown in town.
Southern theaters did not surprisingly refuse to show it at all, and several states had temporary bans, including Pennsylvania and Ohio. Zanuck and Mankiewicz knew this would be the case when the Production Code Administration tried to convince them to cut the riot scenes to appease conservative viewers before the release of the film. They refused, and the box office numbers suffered because of it.
However, there was considerable critical acclaim, especially for Poitier’s performance. Many reviews acknowledged his balanced but powerful on-screen presence. Despite his fourth bill, critics understood that Poitier was the true protagonist No way out. They also responded well to the honest image of racism that the film paints. Ebony the magazine called it “the first out-and-out outbreak of racial discrimination in American everyday life.” There was finally an African-American character who was not there to get comic relief or just to sing and dance and then disappear.
But praise of the film was not universal, even conservative and racist outcry aside. Lillian Scott from Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, wrote: “It is, of course, a great relief to see Hollywood portray Negroes as extremely intelligent, trained people for a change. But why do these superior qualities always come wrapped up in an overly receptive, humorless individual?”
Luther’s character, docile and well-behaved, is indeed a sure creature too No way out. Although it had been the most inexcusable in a film to date, it did not mean that there was no imperfection in the film’s depiction of racism and an African American man’s experience after 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. There were also problems in the making of the film. Black actors were not treated as fairly as white actors. Mankiewicz had to stop production while filming the riot scenes because the black extras protested against unequal pay compared to the white extras.
Black actresses had white makeup artists and hairdressers who did not know how to do their hair or work with darker complexions. The crew spoke outwardly badly about working with the black extras and about Poitier’s “dark skin.” As revolutionary as this film may have been, times did not change off-screen. The filmmakers were supposed to connect with the struggles of the black society with their films, but they did not exactly maintain it in their everyday lives.
While we watch No way out today, its ideas of progressive representation of racism feel dated in many ways. We can see the decisions that filmmakers made to appease their power and the limits of their own morality at the time. Poitier’s screen debut should not be taken 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 portray the ugliness of racism, why then do we still limit black characters in the same way that Luther was in 1950? Important older films like this can still excite and entertain modern audiences, but they can also reveal much of what we still need to work on as a society, as well as what Hollywood still needs to work on to shed light on these issues.
Related topics: Beyond the Classics
Emily Kubincanek is a senior contributor to Film School Rejects and a resident classic Hollywood fan. When she’s not writing about old movies, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweet about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_