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Down in the cornfield,
Hear that mournful sound!
Listen to the weepin’ and the wailin’!
Massa’s in the cold, cold ground!
Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, owner of Cotchipee County, Georgia, is dead. Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson presides over his funeral, stating that he was “brave enough to die standing for what he believes in, and it is the wish of his family, and of his friends, that he be buried likewise.” When Cotchipee’s coffin is brought into Big Bethel Church, it is wheeled in standing up, the same position in which Cotchipee died. On top of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s coffin is his hat. Attached on one side of the coffin is the Confederate flag, on the other, the bullwhip that Ol’ Cap’n used on several of the members of Big Bethel Church’s congregation, all of whom are happy to sing the above lyrics. Adding to the absurdity of this image, there’s a medal pinned to the coffin.
So begins 1963’s Purlie Victorious, the film adaptation of Ossie Davis’ 1961 play. Davis and his director, Nicholas Webster, literally open up the play—the walls of Big Bethel roll away before the opening credits as if this were on stage—and transplant the original cast, save one member, to the screen. This adaptation was overshadowed seven years later by a Broadway musical version starring Tony winners Melba Moore and Cleavon Little, and a cable version of said musical in 1981 starring Moore and Robert Guillaume (who replaced Little in the original version as well). The musical used so much of Davis’ original play that, despite having little to do with the musical, Davis is co-credited with the book. Though I enjoyed the Guillaume version of the musical, it’s something of a shame that the film version has fallen by the wayside. It is a very funny satire, filled with early performances by several actors who would become known for bigger things later.
There aren’t too many Black satires around, so my appreciation of Davis’ text may seem overstated. But I love Purlie Victorious more than Melba Moore does. On a surface level, I can see how some would find the material offensive; Davis and company are playing stereotypes. But on a deeper level, they are putting on an act in order to keep those in power oblivious to just how smart they really are. “Some of the best pretendin’ in the world is done in front of White folks,” says Purlie (Ossie Davis) to Lutibelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Ruby Dee), a character as country as her name suggests.
The key to noticing this double meaning is Godfrey Cambridge’s Gitlow Judson, a role for which he received a Tony nomination. Gitlow is Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s favorite darkie, and he says some of the more incendiary things in the picture. But watch Cambridge’s face and body when Ol’ Cap’n asks him to swear before God that “the nigras” are happy on his plantation. Cambridge holds up his hand and does so, but just before he says it, he looks heavenward, expecting that bolt of lightning to hammer him for lying in God’s name. Gitlow is running a hustle and a half on Ol’ Cap’n, and the proud Confederate gentleman is just too oblivious to see it. How dare his darkies be smarter than he is? It’s not possible! “If slavery comes back,” Purlie says to his brother, “I want to be your agent.”
Purlie Victorious takes place not in slavery times, but in the Jim Crow South where numerous Blacks work on the Cotchipee plantation to settle debts with Ol’ Cap’n they will never be able to repay. To this plantation returns Reverend Purlie, with Lutiebelle in tow, to underhandedly obtain an inheritance that is rightfully his. Lutibelle (Ruby Dee) is to impersonate a cousin of Purlie’s, whose mother, by virtue of working for Cap’n Cotchipee, is entitled to a $500 inheritance. Both the cousin and her mother are deceased, so Purlie is next in line for the money, which he wants to use to buy the Big Bethel church. Big Bethel is on Cotchipee land (the man owns the whole damn county, for Pete’s sake) and the former owner is selling it. Ol’ Cap’n wants to buy it and burn it down.
Lutibelle is terrified of this ruse. She doesn’t think she can pull it off, and her extreme country mannerisms and speech patterns, along with her wide-eyed sense of wonder and innocence, would indicate Lutibelle is right. Purlie’s cousin was a college educated woman, and all Lutiebelle knows is the kitchen of her beloved Miss Ellie Mae. But Purlie thinks she can succeed at the ruse, and along with his sister-in-law, Missy (Hilda Haynes, replacing Helen Martin as the only non-original cast member), he convinces Lutibelle to play along. “Being colored can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody lookin’,” Missy tells Lutibelle. Plus, Lutibelle is in love—L-O-V-E love—with “Rev’ren Purlie.” (Melba Moore’s interpretation of this luv in the musical is fun but kind of sickening.)
Cap’n Cotchipee has his own problems. He’s saddled with a son Charlie (an excellent, and young, Alan Alda), the last heir to the Cotchipee name, who believes in that “all men are created equal” crap those liberal Yankees have been feeding him. Said crap gets Charlie a wicked shiner from bar patrons who didn’t take too kindly to that kind of talk. Idella (Beah Richards), Charlie’s mammy and a force to be reckoned with on the plantation (even Ol’ Cap’n is a little afraid of her) scolds Charlie for running his mouth. “But you told me about this,” Charlie whines. Idella says yes, but she didn’t tell him to say it in public. Ol’ Cap’n shows up, takes one look at that black eye, and flies off the handle. Oh the shame to his Confederate forefathers!
Ol’ Cap’n is played by Sorrell Booke, Boss Jefferson Davis Hogg to you Dukes of Hazzard fans out there. Booke has the trickiest role to play in Purlie Victorious. He has to utter the film’s ugliest dialogue, but do so in a manner befitting the satirical nature of the play. He has to be someone we can laugh at, but at the same time believable enough for us to fear when he directs his bullwhip at our heroes. Since we know at the outset that Cap’n Cotchipee is dead, and his plans have been foiled, this helps us laugh at Ol’ Cap’n. But none of that discounts Booke’s performance and, despite him not being on the screen, he contributes to Davis’ best scene as well.
In his white hat, string tie, glasses and beard, Booke looks like he fell off a bucket of chicken. Armed with a cane he uses more for punctuation than walking, Ol’ Cap’n fits the description of the perfect Southern gentleman. It’s a shock to learn that Booke was born in New York, not some Georgia backwood, for he is a superb interpreter of this kind of role. Booke also worked intelligence during the Korean War AND spoke fluent Japanese. I can never look at Boss Hogg the same way again.
Ol’ Cap’n and Gitlow grew up together, which is why Gitlow is his most trusted Negro. “You ever seen a cotton pickin’er darkie in ya life?” Ol’ Cap’n asks his son, words that pass for the highest praise he can offer. When the Senator laments that “it’s impossible to find the old fashioned, solid, hard-earned Uncle Tom type nigra nowadays,” Ol’ Cap’n says he should look at Gitlow. “Well, yessir, by the grace of God there are still a few of us left,” says Gitlow.
Cap'n: What happened to your head?
Gitlow: Missy, uh, I mean a mosquito!
Cap'n: It must have been wearin' brass knucks!
Gitlow: Missy, uh, I mean a mosquito!
Cap'n: It must have been wearin' brass knucks!
The relationship between a White boy, his Mammy and a Black kid is referred to several times in Purlie Victorious. Gitlow and Ol’ Cap’n have the standard relationship, and even though Charlie would like to think his relationship with Purlie and Idella differs completely, a scene in a treehouse proves him wrong. As Purlie tries to explain his issues, Charlie seems at first indifferent, then clueless as to how to respond. Charlie may be more enlightened, but he still subconsciously sees Purlie as a subordinate. Even Charlie’s apology to Purlie, for causing him to get Ol’ Cap’n’s bullwhip back when they were kids, seems half-hearted, though it doesn’t ring false.
The ruse with Lutibelle and Ol’ Cap’n works, despite Ol’ Cap’n being completely oblivious to Purlie feeding her lines from offscreen. Ol’ Cap’n’s too busy looking at fine young Ruby Dee to pay much mind. To sweeten the pot, Purlie creates a fake document proclaiming that Ol’ Cap’n has been voted “Great White Father of the Year” by his darkies. Ol’ Cap’n is beside himself with Southern joy! All goes well until Lutibelle accidentally signs her own name on the receipt for the $500. Then all hell breaks loose.
Ol’ Cap’n is beside himself with anger. After all he’s done for his Negroes, they try to bamboozle him. He tells Gitlow that he always followed his father’s advice about treating his workers well, so he has no idea why this would happen. His father’s advice, by the way, was “feed the Negroes first, after the horses and cattle.” “And I’ve done it every time,” cries Ol’ Cap’n.
While Purlie hides out in that aforementioned treehouse, Missy and Lutiebelle wonder where he is. Gitlow says he’s probably halfway through Georgia.
Gitlow: What’s wrong with runnin’? It emancipated more people than Abe Lincoln ever did.
Lutibelle: How dare you? The bravest, finest man!
Gitlow: The finer they come, the braver they be, the deader these White folks gonna kill 'em when they catch ‘em.
Idella saves the day by getting Ol’ Cap’n to drop the forgery charges. “I threatened to leave, and to take Charlie with me,” she proudly tells Missy. Idella also knows exactly where the two are: the same place they used to hide as children. She brings Purlie back, and he discovers that Gitlow has somehow managed to worm the $500 out of Ol’ Cap’n. Or so we think. It’s actually a ruse to get Gitlow out of the picture so Ol’ Cap’n can get fresh with Lutibelle. Lutiebelle leaves in a huff, returning to Missy’s. When she explains what happened, Purlie is so angry he storms out the house to confront the man who got fresh with his woman!
Purlie returns with his clothes ripped as if he’s been in a struggle. We see him pass Charlie, who has been commissioned by his father to buy the Big Bethel church. Purlie doesn’t speak to Charlie, which worries him. Purlie explains his ripped clothing to Missy, Lutiebelle and Gitlow by holding up not only $500 but also Ol’ Cap’n’s beloved nigra-beatin’ bullwhip. The way the filmmaker frames the whip, and the actor’s reaction to it, speaks volumes.
Purlie then preaches the tale of how he came to acquire that money and that bullwhip. For 6 minutes, Davis mesmerizes with that speech. If you’ve never been to Black church, Davis takes you there. I started calling out “amen!” along with the other characters. It’s a stunning mixture of religion and vengeance and pride, straight from the pulpit. Davis stomps around, growling like a Baptist minister. This is his first big moment in the film, and he owns it. After Davis works us into a holy ghost frenzy, Beah Richards’ punchline takes the entire scene to another level. “That is the biggest lie since the Devil began to talk!” she says.
I won’t tell you how Ol’ Cap’n winds up dying while standing up (I'll show you in a link below), but I will describe Purlie Victorious’ last scene. Big Bethel church has been integrated, with Charlie Cotchipee, its first White member, sitting up front next to Idella. We’re back where we were at the film’s beginning, and Purlie’s last speech is the reason why I wanted to review this movie. On the first edition of the Black List, Colin Powell quotes this last scene, and uses the line to highlight a point he’s making. Purlie’s eulogy of Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee is part Black pride speech and part call for getting along with everyone. To Ol’ Cap’n, Reverend Purlie says “for though you are dead, and in Hell as post mortem guest of honor at our expense, it is not too late to repent.” To us, and his congregation, he says:
“Accept in full the sweetness of your Blackness, not wishing to be red or White or yellow or any other race or face but this…Farewell, my deep and Africanic brothers. Be brave. Keep freedom in the family. Do what you can for the White folks, and they, in turn, must do in deed for you.”
Powell says “at the end of Purlie Victorious, Ossie Davis says: ‘and do what you can for the White folks.’” During Purlie’s rousing 6-minute speech, he asks why the other cheek that gets turned must always be the Black one. Purlie answers his own question in Cotchipee’s eulogy, and Powell reminded me of this play when he explains how Blacks in his day had to take it upon themselves to educate others about who we are and why we deserve fair treatment. Reverend Purlie reverses that timeframe’s thought process of Blacks being helpless and in dire need of help (which is what makes the Great White Father award concept so damn funny to me). We don’t need the help, THEY do. “Do what you can for the White folks.” But note what follows those words. It’s got to be a quid pro quo.
While the musical is a lot of fun, the only thing it has over this version is that Sherman Hemsley, as Gitlow, gets to sing a song I wish Cambridge had gotten the chance to do. “There’s more than one way of skinnin’ a cat,” sings George Jefferson. Purlie Victorious shows us one way of asking for tolerance by taking all the old Hollywood stereotypes and using them for good rather than evil.
Your Homework Assignment:
A lot of this movie is on YouTube. I linked to four pieces above. Rent it or piece it together out there online.