Exploring the Universal Nature of Human Dignity with No Way Out, Sidney Poitier’s very first film
By Onalee McGraw, Director, Educational Guidance Institute
We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.
“But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of striving to enter into the palace of justice. He warns against falling into bitterness and hatred. Pondering King’s words, we are sobered by the deep divisions and racial animosities that continue to plague our civil society.
Will we ever be able to live in the palace of justice in peace and harmony together? We need answers to these important existential questions in the present moment of our nation’s history. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, No Way Out is a groundbreaking 1950 film exploring racial hatred, helps us to find them.
Several years ago, Educational Guidance Institute presented No Way Out to students in an after-school program in a large multi-cultural Northern Virginia high school. In this film, which introduced Sidney Poitier to movie audiences, a young black doctor is persecuted by a white racist. The film dramatizes the vital role of friendship in times of crisis and racial animosity. I love to tell students the film’s moving back-story: No Way Out’s protagonist Sidney Poitier and his antagonist Richard Widmark began a lifelong friendship in the making of this film. Years later the friendship of these two film icons was recounted by Widmark in his tribute to Poitier at the American Film Institute. Richard Widmark Tribute to Sidney Poitier
Even though the disturbed villain uses the “N word” to attack the black doctor several times throughout the film, this did not shock any of the students in this racially diverse classroom. This is the power of cinematic art: We experience the truth about our shared human condition in a way that is mysteriously universal and objective.
Events at Howard University in the Early Years of the Civil Rights Movement
The first time I reflected on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I was hearing him in person. I was a college junior at Howard University sitting in Rankin Chapel in the spring of 1960. As an exchange student from Whittier College in California to Howard University in Washington DC, I had the unexpected opportunity to be a participant in early events of the civil rights movement.
King explained to us how the courage of young people at Fisk University in Nashville was being tested. Students were “safe” up in Washington DC he said, while their fellow students at Fisk were putting their safety and even their lives on the line at “sit-ins” at lunch counters in Nashville. In a now famous exchange, Fisk University student Diane Nash had confronted Nashville’s mayor during one of the sit-ins just a few weeks earlier. King urged Howard students to take a stand.
A few days after King’s visit to Howard, a handful of my fellow students took up King’s challenge. They chartered a small bus to go down to the Eisenhower White House and march peacefully in front of it for about an hour. I still remember crossing the campus near the chapel and noticing a bus parked beside it. Several students who knew me called out from the bus and challenged me to join them, which I did. But it was not courage or determination, but sincere friendship and solidarity that were in play. I learned an unforgettable lesson that day: friendship and solidarity make up the glue that holds us together in the cause of justice. Consider again Martin Luther King’s statement: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” This wisdom is evident in the final scenes of No Way Out. Sidney Poitier’s character says: “I can’t kill a man just because he hates me.”
When we hear these words in the film, we recognize them as morally binding for all of us. We thus recognize the universal nature of human dignity, not as members of a particular group but as members of the human race. No Way Out makes a statement on our present day civil and political divides. Onalee McGraw on Sidney Poitier’s First Movie, No Way Out.