BadAzz MoFo celebrates Black History Month 2012 by focusing on Black Cinema—a look at the films, filmmakers, and actors that have contributed to the black diaspora in film.
Released briefly in 1963 as Gone Are the Days, Purlie Victoriouswas based on the successful stage play of the same name by Ossie Davis that had debuted two years earlier. Davis stars as Purlie Victorious Judson, a fast-talking reverend who returns to the backwoods of Cotchipee County in rural Georgia, and the cotton plantation he fled twenty years earlier. The plantation is owned by Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Sorrell Booke), an old-school southerner who misses the good old days of slavery and laments the recent Supreme Court decision regarding segregation. Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee keeps the sharecroppers on his plantation in check through fear and intimidation, and it was after a beating by him that Purlie ran away all those years ago. But when Purlie returns home, he has a plan to get even with Cotchipee. With help from the love of his life, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Ruby Dee), the preacher plans to con the plantation owner out of $500, which Purlie will use to start a church. Things go wrong, and Purlie finds himself on the run once again, but when Ol’ Cap’n makes in appropriate overtures toward Lutiebelle, the preacher goes into a murderous rage, and sets out to confront the man that has oppressed him and his family for decades.
Despite the serious subject matter dealing with race relations, Purlie Victoriousis actually a comedy. A brilliant comedy at that. Davis’ script, adapted from the play, is a wicked farce brimming with tongue-twisting poetic dialog and profound observations about racism and civil rights. And when you consider that the play and the film came along in the early 1960s, the script’s sharp poignancy becomes even more profound. Over forty years later, a few films have taken such a razor-sharp comedic look at old Southern culture, and the dawn of a new era in Dixie.
Davis, whose career has been filled with memorable performances, is at his absolute best. Having written the script and played the part on the stage, Davis commands the screen. But he is not alone. Ruby Dee is hilarious as his awe-struck love, and Alan Alda, in one of his first roles, gives a great performance as Charlie, the progressive thinking son of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. If there is anyone who steals the film, however, it is Sorrell Booke as Cotchipee. Probably best known for his work on the television show Dukes of Hazard, where he co-starred as Boss Hog, Booke is amazing as the hopelessly racist plantation owner that would rather die than see the world around him change. Booke’s scenes with Godfrey Cambridge, co-starring as Purlie’s brother Gitlow, are comic perfection.
Filmed on a low budget with fake sets that resemble those of a stage production, some people might be initially put off by Purlie Victorious. From a technical standpoint the film can be a bit crude. Filmed by director Nicolas Webster as if it were a play, with long single takes and few edits (and many of the edits are a bit awkward), the movie relies on the performances of the actors to create comedic timing. And while the performances are all fine-tuned works of comedy, the entire cast brings the large, over-the-top energy of a stage-bound farce to the screen. In an era of sit-com derived humor and toilet jokes, the intelligent, screwball nature of Purlie Victorious may seem a bit outdated and foreign to contemporary audiences. But this is what a great comedy is and should be.