I’m thrilled to take part in Dell On Movies‘ Acting Black Blogathon, devoted to black actors as part of Black History Month. The classic noir cycle — style, genre, whatever — is known more for coding race into its opposition of darkness and light than its great roles for black actors. As Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo explain in Noir Anxiety, blackness is encoded in the “‘dark’ style of noir [that] puts both protagonists and villains into the shadows, so much so that they appear visually black on the screen” (1). Where the “Negro problem films” of the 1940s and 1950s focus on blacks passing for white, the classic noir cycle of the same era “presents whites who look visually black” (1). Oliver and Trigo thus conclude that “film noir, with its sharp black-and-white contrasts, conjures the specter of race like no other cinematic style” (4).
Nonetheless, there are a few films that address race directly and use black actors and characters to do so. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), produced and financed by its star, Harry Belafonte, is probably the most famous noir featuring black actors and actively addressing race relations. The lesser-known No Way Out (1950), however, blends noir style and content with the “Negro Problem film” genre even more directly and fully. Sidney Poitier plays Luther Brooks, a talented and earnest young doctor recently hired onto the all-white staff of a large city hospital. The noir tension of the film is between Dr. Brooks and a racist white criminal from the wrong side of the tracks, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), featuring such a vicious mouth that rumor has it Widmark apologized to Poitier after every take.
This antagonism becomes more than one criminal seeking what he sees as revenge when his brother dies at the hands of Dr. Brooks, as the film climaxes in a riot between blacks and whites living across town from each other. By moving beyond the focus on tension between two men to broader concerns of racial tension among the underclass, the film includes diverse black voices in a powerful group of black supporting actors, including Ruby Dee (in her first role) and Ossie Davis as Luther’s sister and hot-headed brother, Maude Simmons as his mother, and Mildred Joanne Smith as his wife Cora (her only film role, for she was tragically injured in a plane crash that ended her stage/screen career). One of the most compelling interactions in the film is between Luther and Lefty Jones (Dots Johnson), an elderly elevator operator, showing contrasting attitudes toward issues of uplift. The older man is cynical about whether blacks will ever be treated by whites as equals, while Luther just wants to do his job and be respected for it.
Another compelling scene for the black actors in the cast occurs when Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell), ex-wife of Ray Biddle’s dead brother, flees riotous violence to the home of Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), the (white) head of staff of the hospital who gave Dr. Brooks his chance. Despite her overt racism, she is treated with remarkable kindness by Wharton’s housekeeper Gladys (Amanda Randolph, of Amos and Andy fame, among many other appearances). When Luther’s wife also shows up to speak to Dr. Wharton about her husband, Edie finds herself in the midst of a conversation between two black women, talking about their lives: the supportive, worried young wife of a professional and the older domestic servant. Gladys speaks of the pleasure she gets in caring for others, both her own family and the noted white physician for whom she works. Although the scene is written by white men, it shows sensitivity and care, with Edie standing in for the white audience who lacks the kind of personal experience with blacks that can change perspectives and lives.
In the end, it is distressing to see the film’s white actors (Widmark, Darnell, and McNally) given higher billing than protagonist Sidney Poitier. And it is part of a tragic racist Hollywood history that he is the only black actor credited. Nonetheless, No Way Out contains a diverse cast of black characters who share differing perspectives on race relations and self-worth, making it a unique and powerful film for its era and especially for film noir.