“I’m gonna’ build me a chapel.”
An itinerant African-American (Sidney Poitier) is waylaid in his journeys when the head (Lilia Skala) of a group of nuns in the desert enlists his help in building a chapel — despite the fact that they have no money and few supplies.
Although Peary doesn’t review Lilies of the Field in GFTFF, he does discuss it a bit in his Alternate Oscars, where he notes that Poitier’s selection as Best Actor came “at a time when millions of whites across America were deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement”, and thus his award may have been “given because Academy voters… felt pressure to show the world they were willing to give their major awards to blacks”. While he acknowledges that Poitier “had given consistently excellent performances” since “beginning his film career in 1950”, Peary argues that “with the possible exception of his performance in A Raisin the Sun, he was never worthy of a Best Actor Oscar” — especially not for playing “likable” handyman Homer Smith in this “pleasant but unremarkable” film by director Ralph Nelson, based on a novel by William Edmund Barrett. He asserts that “Homer is [Poitier’s] least interesting and least complex character”, not to mention “least threatening” given that “he can even take his shirt off around nuns.”
With that said, Poitier brings some much-needed energy to this otherwise overly-twee tale of a no-nonsense head nun and her gaggle of nondescript “sisters”. The storyline is far too simple to engage on anything other than a vaguely metaphorical level, and even then we’re not quite sure exactly what to make of its fable-like qualities. I suppose the primary moral is that persistence and faith pay off, given how Skala’s stubborn insistence that her chapel WILL be built eventually bears fruit; meanwhile, a message about the importance of relying on others for strategic help is slipped in as well. Ultimately, this film remains worth a one-time look both for historical reasons (Poitier’s landmark Oscar) and as a fine early attempt at intimate, low-budget filmmaking — but the narrative (apparently based on a true story) isn’t compelling enough to make it must-see viewing.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith
- Lilia Skala as Mother Maria
No, though of course it’s of interest for historical reasons.