On Paris Blues


On Film

Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman in Paris Blues (1961). Courtesy of Metrograph.

“For me as a kid,” writes Darryl Pinckney in a memoir in the Review’s Summer issue, “the film had everything I couldn’t have: cigarettes and train stations, late nights and drinking. Sex.” The film in question is Paris Blues (1961), directed by Martin Ritt and starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. In honor of Pinckney’s essay, the Review and Metrograph cohosted a screening of the film on the evening of Sunday, July 10—the first in an ongoing series of cohosted evenings. Before a sold-out theater, Pinckney greeted the enthusiastic audience with a talk that spanned the glory of Sidney Poitier, the changing role of race in postwar cinema, and dreams of integration and artistic integrity. Today, we are publishing his remarks in full.

The black character entered mainstream postwar cinema as a social problem. This is the milieu of Sidney Poitier’s debut, in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out in 1950. He is a doctor, and the black community beats off the white mob come for revenge on Poitier’s character after a bigot’s brother dies in his care. Two decades went by before a network television station was willing to air the film in prime time. In Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle (1955), Poitier is thirty-one years old but completely convincing as a bright, ambivalent black student at a high school troubled by violent ethnic rivalries and nihilistic juvenile crime. In The Devil Finds Work (1976), James Baldwin recalls that Harlem audiences bayed at the Sidney Poitier character at the end of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958). A black convict is suddenly free of the white convict he’s been chained to for more than an hour on-screen, but he falls off the train he hopped on to escape, because he extended his hand too far to the white convict, who had been giving him such an awful, racist time. Poitier found a film world opposed to the Hays Code, segregation, and McCarthyism by temperament as well as from principle. He fit right in. He worked with the best people right off. These films were made with studio commitment, if not entirely wanted by them. The black director Lloyd Richards made a Broadway hit of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, but he was passed over when it came to the making of the film, which featured the original cast, including Sidney Poitier. The film came out in 1961, a few months ahead of Paris Blues.

As the sixties went on, Poitier’s characters saved white women: a blind girl in A Patch of Blue (1965); a suicidal woman in The Slender Thread (1965); a rich girl who doesn’t need saving in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967); and the peace of mind of the widow of a murdered factory owner in In the Heat of the Night (1967). No wonder Poitier went in for comedies in the seventies, light detective fare, his version of the blaxploitation film that provided professional relief from social-problem dramas, not to mention a chance to project images of black characters formed by pressures not having to do with a white executive’s ability to accept them. But we identify Poitier with those daring social dramas. He embodied the moral superiority of—what to call it—blackness, black spirit, black people when in conflict with the dupes of their own white racism. His intelligence and good looks and poise and strength left race theorists on their own ground. Like Paul Robeson, Poitier didn’t have to be accounted for. He was box office magic.

Both Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman had worked with the director Martin Ritt before. Poitier had starred in Ritt’s gritty labor drama Edge of the City (1957), with John Cassavetes as a white worker in need whom Poitier’s character befriends on the docks. (Ruby Dee plays his wife in this film, as she would in A Raisin in the Sun.) Paul Newman is the drifter who marries up in the world in Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). (Joanne Woodward plays the rich girl he shapes up for.) It’s supposed to be Faulkner, but it’s impossible not to think of Tennessee Williams. All that steaminess. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Richard Brooks, came out the same year as The Long, Hot Summer. In the wishing-well world of Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman is on crutches—any excuse not to be eaten alive by Elizabeth Taylor.

Ritt’s Paris Blues recasts the social drama of race, turning it into a portrayal of the sacrifices of art, the cost of charting your own destiny. Ram Bowen, played by Paul Newman, is a trombonist, and Eddie Cook, the Sidney Poitier role, is a saxophonist and a member of Ram’s band, which has a regular job at a Paris club. Connie (Diahann Carroll), a black schoolteacher, and her white best friend, Lillian (Joanne Woodward), a mother of two, arrive in Paris for an inexpensive two-week winter holiday. Though Ram initially hits on Connie, she and Eddie will fall in love, as will Ram and Lillian. The tension of the film is in whether the men will give up on their lives in Paris and go home with the women. In his study Blacks in Films (1975), Jim Pines argues that Ritt uses racial understatement as a form of alternate characterization. The racial theme is secondary to his purpose; his focus is on the struggle of the characters to maintain their individuality and integrity.

The music talks for them, is interior consciousness, an alternative narration itself. Critics at the time admired the underscore of the film that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed. (Strayhorn was not credited, even though his composition “Take the ‘A’ Train” opens the film, as David Hajdu points out in his 1996 biography, Lush Life). The sound track also mixes in Ellington favorites. Johnny Hodges makes a guest appearance in the last measures of “Paris Blues.” The Ellington-Strayhorn score laughs that swing isn’t over. Here comes Louis Armstrong, a sort of father figure of the music. The film was released as cool jazz arrived, but its music is already encouraging nostalgia. Paris, city of self-discovery, heartache, and American regret.

By comparison, love’s streets are mean in the New York of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), in which a white Beat guy shows himself not hip enough to have a girlfriend who turns out to be black. Josephine Baker is called upon to renounce either the white man or Paris itself in her early films; Kenneth Macpherson made Borderline (1930) in Switzerland—with Paul Robeson and H.D. It is a story in which the injured party, the white wife, pays with her life for her husband’s interracial love affair. But Paris Blues is neither a film about passing nor one about interracial romance. At the time of its release, Paris Blues appeared to have few antecedents in film history. However, the novel on which the film is based, Harold Flender’s Paris Blues (1957), is in a literary tradition, that of the American in Paris: Henry James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller.

Flender’s novel concentrates on Eddie, on the seediness of his hot music scene, his several loves, and his bitterness toward America. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” announced a cultural fascination with the black man as a born star of the existential crisis of man. Flender, a white writer, was already on message. The film, on the other hand, is concerned mostly with Ram Bowen, the white trombonist, which is maybe one of those examples of what can happen when a subject such as black alienation goes mainstream. Flender’s dark realism on the page blossomed into a beautifully photographed romance of light and shade. What the film keeps of the novel’s central story is Connie’s challenge to Eddie to return to the United States and face whatever is coming in the struggle for social change. The novel is set in the brooding fifties; in the film we see Kennedy’s name in a newspaper headline. The world is new.

Clifford Thompson, in an essay on Paris Blues in his collection Love for Sale: And Other Essays (2013), notes that the romance of the black couple and that of the white couple are handled very differently. Eddie and his girlfriend, Connie, walk all over the tourist town, arm in arm, while Ram and Lillian wake up in his bed her first morning in Paris. To make Connie intelligently virtuous gets around the fears there may have been at the time that audiences, black as well as white, might be offended by showing black people being sexual on the screen. The film is also innocent about drugs, having a sort of Reefer Madness ignorance about cocaine addiction, in the case of Ram’s guitarist, whom Ram tries to save. The film cleans up the milieu we think of when we think of jazz. Only wine and cigarettes, cigarettes. Bohemia in Ritt’s film is not escapist; it is opportunity.

The essays of Richard Wright and James Baldwin from the late fifties and early sixties have little to say about the treatment of Algerians in Paris, because the French government was clear that any outspokenness on the subject would put a black American writer’s visa at risk. What seems to have made an impression on black audiences in 1961 was how freely the black characters in Paris Blues move around the city, how accepting of their presence the French are shown to be. And the film came out in a year of violent upheaval in francophone Africa, in the Congo and Algeria. When Connie exhorts Eddie that trouble for her family—i.e., black people—is the same as trouble for her, the summer of the Freedom Riders is about to come. Change is powerful, as giddy-making as the love Eddie and Connie declare for each other. Because he is going back committed to the crusade of racial justice, he’s not like the white American characters in postwar film and literature who go home because they’ve been defeated by the sophistication of Europe or stand in psychological need of the stability offered by the conventional life they thought they wanted to get away from.

Expatriatism was understood in black America as an individual solution to a mass problem, which was what it had in common with passing. To cross the color line was a decision about the cost of personal liberty. To cross the ocean was also an effort to remove the black self from U.S. color laws. A handful of black American artists and musicians studied in Paris in the nineteenth century, but the legends of the black American musician in Paris began in the aftermath of World War I. Why go home to get lynched? World War II answered the question. Then, another generation of black veterans delayed going back to racial discrimination in the United States by studying in Paris on the GI Bill. Jazz audiences in Europe were larger, more generous to black musicians than those in the States. Ralph Ellison said in the fifties that he got sick of hearing about the freedom of Parisian cafés. Black expatriates were aware that Paris was the capital of a colonial empire, but Paris was not segregated, the urban freedom was real. In Paris Blues, the pairs of lovers are not interracial, but bohemian Paris is integrated, the jazz tunes are anthems of revolutionary personal combinations. Moreover, the music Ram has lived, jazz, is black, just as his ambition to make what was considered serious music of it is Ellingtonian. His wish to succeed with black music as his roots is a kind of integration working the other way. Ram is not of the devil’s party; he is the anti-Chet, worthy, far from self-destructive myths about creativity. Throughout the film, the talk between the musician friends is about work, finding time to work.

Maybe that is why Paris Blues brings to mind those works that remember what an integrated scene the literary and music worlds were in the early sixties. Hettie Jones’s memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990), recalls the mixed-race couples, the jazz magazines, the clubs, the poetry journals of a downtown New York scene in the fifties and early sixties. Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) storms about this mixed-race cultural scene of the provisional, yet real. Cruse remembers the year 1961, when downtown political groups such as the Organization of Young Men were criticized for being interracial. White people were afraid to offend black people or figured they had no grounds on which to object. Much got thrown away culturally in order to discover what the Black Arts movement found. Where do you see race in this, Hettie Jones demanded when her husband walked out and became a black militant in Harlem. In Paris Blues the interracial is a part of the city’s glamour.


Darryl Pinckney’s memoir, Come Back in September, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the fall.