Sidney Poitier marathon: Sneakers (1992) – Children of the Dust (1995)

Sidney Poitier marathon: Sneakers (1992) – Children of the Dust (1995) February 25, 2021

The latest in a month-long series of re-posts from my Facebook marathon in April 2020.

Sidney Poitier marathon part 21 (1992-1995):

Sneakers (1992) is a fun little movie about computer hackers. I remember liking it when it first came out, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment — but you can’t help thinking that our attitudes towards computer security have changed so much in the past three decades that a film that treated the subject as lightly as this one does would never get made today.

The movie revolves around a team of security experts who are hired by the government — or so they think — to retrieve a microchip. Poitier is one of the five guys on the team, but the movie really belongs to Robert Redford, who plays the team leader. It is Redford who has a significant love interest (played by Mary McDonnell), and it is Redford who has a personal connection to one of the movie’s main villains (played by Ben Kingsley).

Redford is also the only actor whose name appears above the title. The first six names after the title appear to be listed in alphabetical order, so Poitier gets sixth billing in this film (after Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Kingsley, McDonnell and River Phoenix, and before David Straitharn), which has to be one of the lowest billings he ever received on a film (more on that below).

Anyway, it turns out the people who hired the team are not with the government but, rather, some murderous criminal organization, so various hijinks ensue as the team tries to clear its name.

And then, after the good guys win, they are met by an NSA official (played by James Earl Jones) who ends up promising to give each team member what they want (plane tickets for Poitier, a Winnebago for Aykroyd, a woman’s phone number for Phoenix, etc.) in exchange for the microchip, because the NSA needs the microchip to read the FBI’s mail and the White House’s mail… and the scene is played for laughs, but as you watch the film in this post-Snowden era, you just kind of shake your head at the idea that the NSA would need to jump through these kinds of hoops to spy on people, or that any movie with this premise nowadays would be so blithe about it.

A few other quick points:

— As noted above, Poitier gets sixth billing in the opening credits. The only other films in which his name appears that far down the list, as far as I can recall, are: 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, where he gets tenth billing but appears at the top of a list of “featured” actors, all of whom I suspect were playing the high-school students; 1957’s Something of Value, where he gets a prestigious “and Sidney Poitier” credit at the end of the credits; and 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, where he is just one of the many movie stars who get brief cameos in the film.

— Poitier made only four feature films after his return to acting in 1988. In three of them, he played FBI agents. Sneakers is the exception — and in this one, he plays a former CIA agent.

— Once again, no age is given for Poitier’s character, but we are told that he worked for the CIA for 22 years until he was let go in 1987 (just as Poitier’s character in Shoot to Kill had worked for the FBI for 22 years as of 1988). Also, his character has a wife and a young child, but Poitier himself was 65 when the film came out — old enough to be a grandfather, even a great-grandfather, though I don’t believe he had played one yet at this point in his career. (The character’s wife is played by Ellaraino, who was 53 when the film came out.)

— Interestingly, Poitier is the oldest actor on the five-person team — 9 years older than Redford, 22 years older than Strathairn, 25 years older than Aykroyd — but the only member of the team that Poitier had worked with before was the youngest one, Phoenix, who was 43 years younger than Poitier. (Poitier and Phoenix had co-starred in 1988’s Little Nikita prior to this.)

— There is a montage in which McDonnell, being the only woman around, dances with each of the five guys on the team, starting with Poitier. So we get to see some of the moves he used way back when in 1967’s To Sir, with Love and 1977’s A Piece of the Action, and possibly other films.

— The bad guys who pretend to be with the government — and whose “office” is being demolished when Redford returns to that address — are reminiscent of the villains in 1982’s Hanky Panky, whose caboose has disappeared when Gene Wilder takes the authorities to see it.

— One subplot revolves around “computer dating” (slogan: “Welcome to the world of automated compatability!”). I am curious as to how that would have worked, in 1992. I did not get my first e-mail address until 1994, and I was one of the first people I knew to get one.

— This might be the only movie in which Poitier himself uses the f-word. After one of the bad guys calls him “Midnight”, which I think is supposed to be a racial slur, Poitier says he was kicked out of the CIA because of his “temper”, at which point he lashes out at the bad guys, points a gun at them and says, “Motherfuckers mess with me, I split your head!”

— One of the NSA agents who pay a surprise visit to our heroes at the end of the film is female. At first I thought, “Hey, they’re not all male — progress!” But then Phoenix asks for the female agent’s phone number, as a condition of handing over the microchip — and she not only gives it, but seems flattered by the attention — and, suddenly, the inclusion of a female agent within that scene did not seem so progressive.

— Lots of political nods here. When a beggar says the government is taking his home, Redford points to a poster of George H.W. Bush and says, “Talk to him.” (Bush lost his bid for re-election two months after the movie came out, partly because of an economic recession.) Aykroyd says a buddy of his was in Operation Desert Storm, but “on the other side”. (Operation Desert Storm, otherwise known as the Gulf War, took place about a year and a half before the movie came out.) The Redford character delights in stealing money from the Republican party’s bank accounts and giving it to the Black Panthers, Greenpeace, Amnesty International and the United Negro College Fund (which renamed itself the UNCF in 2008). And, perhaps most famously, when the Straitharn character says he wants peace on Earth and good will towards men before the microchip is handed over, the NSA guy says, “We are the United States government! We don’t do that sort of thing!”

— The premise and/or structure of the film — that Redford and Kingsley were partners years ago, and now find themselves on opposite sides after circumstances parted them and one of them has given the other up for dead — remind me of 1995’s GoldenEye.

— This time in LGBT references: A Russian shows Redford a binder with pictures of agents his government thought it could blackmail into working for them, back in the Cold War days, based on the agents’ “sexual preference, financial troubles.”

— Reunions: In addition to Phoenix, Poitier had also worked with James Earl Jones in A Piece of the Action.

Three years later, Poitier finally stepped in front of a camera again for Children of the Dust (1995), a miniseries — Poitier’s second, following 1991’s Separate but Equal — that was also a Western, like 1966’s Duel at Diablo and 1972’s Buck and the Preacher.

In this one, Poitier plays a gunslinger who helps some black Americans start a new life in the Oklahoma territory circa 1890. He also gets a white family to adopt a Native American orphan, and he encourages the orphan to learn how to fit into white society — but when the boy grows up and becomes romantically entangled with his adoptive sister, the rest of the family rejects their relationship. So now the Native character, who is cut off from his tribe and blocked from marrying a white woman, doesn’t feel he belongs in either society.

The relationship between the white girl and the Native guy is the story’s primary focus, I would say, but the miniseries also devotes some screentime to a friendship-bordering-on-relationship between Poitier and one of the female settlers he is guiding. Poitier doesn’t like the thought of people coming to the land and developing it — it’s bad enough he already has a reputation for helping to kill off the buffalo — but the settler says her group represents “progress”, a journey towards freedom, just like the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their journey towards “the Promised Land”. (No one brings up what happened to the original inhabitants of that land once the Hebrews got there…)

The story does take some nasty turns. Roughly half-way through the three-hour miniseries, Poitier is castrated by some KKK members. And it all comes to a climax with Poitier and the Native guy facing certain death from the white men who are pursuing them. (This is, I think, only the sixth time that a Poitier character has died onscreen, and it’s the first time that that has happened since 1969’s The Lost Man.)

But the women carry on, as we see in an epilogue set a few years later — and one of them even has a half-Native son.

A couple other quick points:

— Poitier’s character is half-black and half-Cherokee. He also says he once had a son with a Comanche woman, but both of them died of typhoid. Poitier previously played widowers in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (his son was dead there, too) and 1973’s A Warm December (his daughter was still alive in that one), and his wife died before him in 1957’s Something of Value, too (but their infant son survived).

— As far as I can tell, the Native protagonist is not played by a Native actor. None of the three Westerns Poitier starred in seem to have cast Native actors in the main Native roles.

— The miniseries was directed by David Greene, whose credits include 1973’s Godspell.

— The white woman’s mother is played by Farrah Fawcett.

— The white woman’s racist brother is played by Jim Caviezel, three years before his breakout role in 1998’s The Thin Red Line. He later played Jesus in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ and Luke in 2018’s Paul, Apostle of Christ.

Poitier’s next project after this was the TV-movie To Sir, with Love II (1996). But I already covered that film when I blurbed the original 1967 movie.

Coming up soon: Poitier’s last feature film…

The image above shows River Phoenix, Dan Aykroyd, Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, and David Strathairn in Sneakers.

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