Revisit the playful nuns comedy that won Sidney Poitier the Oscar

Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala in “Les Lys des champs”

“God is good. He sent me a great and strong man.”

So says Mother Maria (Lilia skala) in “Mous des champs” when Sidney PoitierHomer Smith first drives to the ailing Arizona farm that she runs with a group of East German sisters.

LOOK: “Field lilies”, free streaming on Tubi

The mild, almost sitcom-y culture shock that follows is not what you would expect from the film that won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor, making him the first black man to win an Oscar.

But Poitier – who died aged 94 last week – was a nimble actor who could skillfully switch between drama and comedy. And both qualities are exhibited in “Lilies of the Field” from 1963.

The Oscar film by Sidney Poitier

Released eight years after Poitier’s landmark role as a rebellious high school student in “Blackboard Jungle” in 1955 and 34 years before he gave his last feature in “The Jackal” in 1997, “Lilies of the Field” is a curious product of its time.

Based on William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 novel, the film stars Poitier as a nomad jack-of-all-trades who ends up being forced to remain as a full-time handyman for impoverished nuns. It’s a premise that threatens to veer into “Get Out” territory at times, as the nuns continue to give Homer new jobs while withholding his salary. But Poitier and Skala play on the lighter side of the material as Homer and Mother Maria clash in a battle of iron wills.

LOOK: Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman in “Paris Blues”

When a local priest tells Homer that Mother Maria believes God sent him to her, Homer unmoved, “No, I don’t think he sent a black Baptist to a Catholic nun.”

Yet Homer quickly becomes attached to his devoted employers, especially during delightful “Sister Act” sequences where he leads good European nuns in a rousing evangelical arrangement of “Amen.” Homer also finds a personal cause when he learns that these German women and their Mexican-American neighbors are attending mass in the back of a car because there is no church nearby. They need a real chapel, and the aimless but talented Homer might be the perfect man to build it for them.

“Lilies of the Field” uses its comedic tone to dig into topics that would otherwise have been deemed too controversial for the general public in 1963. Race and religion are, of course, the more obvious social issues than “Lilies of the Field “explores, but he’s also interested in gender, politics, purpose and power.

When a white construction contractor calls Homer a “boy,” Homer calls him a “boy” right away. It’s a prelude to the even more repulsive cinematic moment Poitier would offer in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”, when his character slaps himself against a white man who slaps him first.

As in Poitier’s pioneering 1967 interracial romance “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, however, there’s a tension that exists in “Lilies of the Field”. While the film pushes the boundaries in some ways, in others it offers a non-threatening take on unity for the general public.

Yet what stands out most is Poitier’s absolute ease on screen. He projects incredible charisma as a suave wanderer, master of himself but always fallible. While Homer is a natural leader, he’s also wary of being accountable to anything or anyone, a common thread that the film explores in a noticeably low-key way.

“Lilies of the Field” allows Poitier to play all the different sides of himself – funny, frustrated, sensitive, stubborn, charismatic, introspective and caring. Like many of Poitier’s best performers, Homer is a man who is perfectly at ease with himself. And that makes “Lilies of the Field” a compelling watch, even with all the nonsense.

You can stream this classic, for free, on Tubi.

Rated TV-PG. 94 minutes. Real: Ralph nelson. With: Sidney Poitier, Lilia skala, Stanley adams, Dan Frazer.

Other Sidney Poitier’s performances for free on Tubi

Parisian blues (1961): Sidney Poitier and Paul newman play two expatriate musicians who make a living in the City of Light, but consider giving up everything when they meet two American women (Diahann Carroll and Joanne woodward) who visit Paris on vacation. TV-PG. 98 minutes. Real: Martin ritt. Also presenting: Louis armstrong.

Duel at Diablo (1966): In his very first western, Sidney Poitier plays a horse trainer who teams up with a border scout (James garner) who seeks revenge for his wife – a Comanche woman who was murdered by a white man. Rated TV-PG. 103 minutes. Real: Ralph nelson. Also presenting: Bibi anderson, Bill Travers.

They call me Mr. Tibbs! (1970): Sidney Poitier returns as Detective Virgil Tibbs in this sequel to “In The Heat of the Night”. Now working as a San Francisco Police Lieutenant, Tibbs must investigate yet another mysterious murder. Classified R. 108 minutes. Real: Gordon douglas. Also presenting: Martin Landau, Barbara mcnair.

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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and television critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at the AV Club. She also co-hosts the film’s podcast, Role Calling, and shares her thoughts on pop culture on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

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