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From a foot in the door to a body in the house

During the 1940s-50s, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were the first big-name black filmmakers in Hollywood. At a time when black artists mainly had to take on stereotypical roles, they were able to break out of this tyranny. Today, their struggle for inclusive visual arts is more relevant than ever. Extra screenings of their films noirs Odds Against Tomorrow and No Way Out can now be seen in Eye.

By Yasmina Ahamiane03 August 2021

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte
Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte

In 1960, Harry Belafonte became the first Afro-American producer to work in the world of television. A feat to be admired, you would think – but at the same time, also a slap in the face. Because this means that until then, no one had been able to take this step. Was this because there simply wasn’t anyone who the cap fitted? Or was it because we deliberately kept it out of their reach?

The position of black actors and actresses in Hollywood in the 1940s-50s was not an easy one. Not only did they face countless obstacles within the film industry, but also racial discrimination and instability in political and economic terms. All these external factors also formed a source of inspiration for many artists. Racism was a recurring theme in Belafonte’s work. Suddenly, the cruel ways in which black citizens were – and often still are – treated could be seen on the big screen. A breath of fresh air for audiences who recognised this, and who acknowledged these iniquities – but others simply didn’t want to see or hear this trailblazing movement.

An example of this is the film No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), which marks the acting debut of Sidney Poitier as a black doctor who treats a racist patient. The film tackled such sensitive subjects that it was banned in the South of the United States. People were used to a particular portrayal of black citizens, and colouring outside of these lines was no easy task. The struggle for equal rights and inclusivity in the arts turned out to be far from a feather-scattering pillow fight – but rather a long, complex war.

still from No Way Out (Joseph L Mankiewicz, US 1950)
still from No Way Out (Joseph L Mankiewicz, US 1950)

A different narrative

The ground-breaking film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959) was the first film on which Belafonte acted as producer, with his production company HarBel, as well as appearing among the cast. Odds Against Tomorrow was a big hit, full of telling elements: crime, tension and a prominent villain. Unlike a huge portion of the history of Hollywood, this film is a shining example of how black characters can be presented in a sophisticated, in-depth way.

Previously, black actors had mostly played bit parts, with little attention paid to their stories and the emphasis squarely on the – in many cases – white protagonist. Roles often typified by stigma and stereotypes. For a long time, the film world was dominated by an inability to give black filmmakers the space to tell their own stories. In Odds Against Tomorrow, Belafonte is one of the first to make use of a different narrative, devoting attention to all kinds of abuses, rather than just exotic foods.

Apart from being a filmmaker, you may know Belafonte as a jazz singer. He brought international renown to calypso music under the pseudonym King of Calypso, had a hit with his ‘Banana Boat Song’ and carried out valuable work as an ambassador for Unicef.

Like Belafonte, Sidney Poitier was also active in several areas. As an actor who from time to time also took on the role of director. He was also appointed the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan, and in 2009 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This man who at first was rejected by the ANT theatre company in Harlem because of his ‘too prominent Bahamas accent’ went on to become the first black actor to win an Oscar for best male lead.

still from Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, US 1959)
still from Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, US 1959)

Home to us all

From soldier to jazz singer and finally actor and producer. A Tony Award, an Emmy and a Grammy, with many successful films and albums to their names. Belafonte and Poitier did it all, proving through their work not only that there is space for art with sufficient references to your own cultural domain, but also that we ourselves can influence how big this space is. And although this idea is challenging, it is now more relevant than ever. Their experiences as artists, and as human rights activists, are events we need to remember.

It is essential for our society that, like in No Way Out, we see a black doctor. Because the moment the group of people with the same external characteristics as you only play villains and bandits, you slowly start to believe that these are the only roles you are permitted to take on. If you never see yourself on the big screen, you start to believe you don’t belong up there. And the struggles of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte have proven one thing: that the huge, great house of film is home to us all.

campaign image Film Noir – The Dark Side of Hollywood

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campaign image Black Light © Brian Elstak
© Brian Elstak

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still from No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, US 1950)
still from No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, US 1950)

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Film Noir