Until her death on June 11 at age 91, Dee endeavored to do just that. And, on June 28, Turner Classic Movies will honor her 70-year legacy of peaceful activism through art with two groundbreaking films from early in her career.
The network announced today that they’ll pre-empt Saturday’s scheduled programming for two dramas featuring Dee and longtime collaborator Sidney Poitier: Martin Ritt’s EDGE OF THE CITY (1957) will air at 4:15 p.m. (ET) followed by Daniel Petrie’s film of Lorraine Hansberry’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1961) at 5:45 p.m.
Dee and Poitier first worked together on stage at Harlem’s American Negro Theater, and went on to co-star in the original Broadway production of Hansberry’s now-iconic play beginning in March of 1959. For 530 performances, Poitier played limousine driver Walter Lee Younger, Dee was his wife Ruth, Glynn Turman was their young son Travis, Claudia McNeil was Walter’s long-suffering mother Lena, and Diana Sands his sister, Beneatha – all living together in a small apartment in segregated Chicago.
The four adult leads, along with Louis Gossett Jr. as Beneatha’s boyfriend and John Fiedler as their politely racist new neighbor, recreated their roles for Petrie’s film, released by Columbia Pictures in 1961. As adapted by Hansberry, the celluloid version changes little from the stage, save for the addition of the previously unseen Willie, the man who bilks the family and creates an unfortunate opportunity for soul-searching and redemption.
I’ve seen A RAISIN IN THE SUN on TCM more than once, and it’s always a pleasure to revisit. But EDGE OF THE CITY, which I had never seen until I streamed it earlier today via Warner V.O.D. on Amazon Instant, is a revelation.
Produced by former Warner Bros. press agent (and future talk show host) David Susskind, directed by Blacklist survivor Ritt, and released by MGM, this gritty drama about corruption and racial tension amongst New York City longshoremen feels like ON THE WATERFRONT PART 2. While it’s not as good as Kazan’s film, it’s narratively braver, with a rough-hewn, indie quality and a dream cast, including Dee, Poitier, John Cassavetes, Jack Warden, and Kathleen Maguire.
Poitier plays Tommy, a good-natured stevedore who befriends the brooding new-kid-on-the-dock Axel Nordmann (Cassavetes, looking far younger than his 28 years). Dee, adorable in a ponytail and bobby socks, is Tommy’s non-nonsense wife, Lucy. Maguire is the (slightly) older woman who takes a liking to the damaged, painfully emo Axel (Cassavetes gives what feels, at times, like a James Dean homage here). And Jack Warden is delightfully hissable as the John Friendly-esque foreman, a man guided more by his hatred of the “other” than by the desire to illicitly make a buck.
Like MARTY (1955), REQUIM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962) and other popular films of the era, EDGE OF THE CITY got its start on television, as a 1955 episode of NBC’s live dramatic anthology series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. The Emmy nominated teleplay, called The Man is Ten Feet Tall, also featured Poitier as Tommy (with Don Murray in the Cassavetes role) and was written by Robert Alan Aurthur, who adapted it for the screen. EDGE OF THE CITY occasionally descends into overwrought soapiness, but it’s more than redeemed by excellent performances, a Saul Bass title sequence, and some excellent New York City location photography (some of it even sync-sound). Poitier and Cassavetes are excellent as buddies who see beyond skin color, and Dee is fiercely realistic as a young woman caught in the crossfire of racism. Her climatic catharsis scene is a triumph, at a time when words of that strength by African-American characters (especially women) were still surprising.
I’m not sure why this film doesn’t get screened more, especially considering its pedigree. If you’re a fan of Poitier and his Oscar-nominated performance opposite Tony Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES (1958), it’s a must.
And even though TCM isn’t airing it, I recommend you make Saturday a triple feature with the addition of Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), a film which was released 25 years ago this week and is (sadly) as relevant today as it was then. Plus you’ll get a chance to see Dee (as neighborhood elder Mother Sister) perform opposite Ossie Davis, her partner in image making and peacemaking for 57 years. They are truly a duo for the ages.
For more information on TCM’s schedule, click here. Note: this article was updated and expanded on 6/24/14.