Gone Are the Days!
Posted by martinteller on April 4, 2014
The black citizens of Cotchipee Country, Georgia live under the thumb of Jim Crow laws and the wealthy plantation owner Ol’ Cap’ Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Sorrell Booke). The Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson (Ossie Davis) returns to Cotchipee with his new fiancée Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Ruby Dee), an axe to grind, and a plan. For $500, he can buy “Big Bethel”, the community church, and unite his people from the pulpit. It just so happens that Cotchipee is holding a $500 inheritance that belongs to cousin Bea. Cousin Bea is dead… but Lutiebelle bears a resemblance to her. With the help of Aunt Missy (Hilda Haynes) and cousin Gitlow (Godfrey Cambridge) and maybe even Cotchipee’s own liberal-minded son Charlie (Alan Alda), Purlie will try to pass off Lutiebelle as Bea and reclaim the money that rightfully belongs to his family.
Written by Davis based on his own play “Purlie Victorious” (later adapted into a successful Broadway musical). The theater roots are evident, almost every scene takes place in Purlie’s home or the plantation’s commissary. But cinematographer Boris Kaufman — perhaps best known for his gorgeous work on all of Jean Vigo’s films — lends the film enough visual flair so it doesn’t feel too stagebound. In the opening scene, we start at the end in the church, and the walls fly away to take us back to the preceding events… a move reminiscent of Olivier’s work on Henry V.
The dialogue is quite sharp and funny. Davis gives himself a host of colorful speeches as the verbose preacher, and he recites them beautifully. He’s riveting. The film is a farce, and as such, many of the people in it are caricatures. Regular readers of this blog know how fond I am of the great Ruby Dee (Davis’s wife and partner of many decades). While I don’t like seeing her reduced to such a burlesque, it’s appropriate for the material. And even as a naïve bumpkin, she excels, making a Lutiebelle a sweet character. Cambridge and Haynes are a delight as well… a bit broad at times, but mostly enjoyable. It’s odd to see “Hawkeye Pierce” and “Boss Hogg” a good decade or more before the roles that made them famous. Alda’s reedy Georgia accent is distracting and Booke does too much hollerin’ for my tastes, but they hold their own among a strong cast.
The movie can be a bit messy in places, and some of the plot elements are poorly developed. But the social commentary is sharp, coming in the middle of the civil rights movement. It doesn’t have the complexities of Do the Right Thing, but it gets off some pointed remarks about racial inequalities without coming off like soapboxing. A little uneven perhaps, but most of it is quite enjoyable, especially for fans of Davis and Dee. This movie is available on YouTube. Rating: Good (75)