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African Americans made up 12% of the population of the United States in the 1950s but only 2% of the medical workforce. That this proportion is now a somewhat more representative 6% may have been helped a little by a change in Hollywood medical stereotypes, the first step in which was Joseph Mankiewicz's shocking and provocative No Way Out, starring Sydney Poitier in his first credited screen appearance.
When the film was released, segregation had only recently been abolished in the army and would remain legal in schools for another four years (until 1954). Although a black hospital movement had grown up from the 1920s to offer support to black doctors as well as patients, many states still had few black doctors training alongside white counterparts.
No Way Out follows conscientious junior doctor Luther Brooks (Poitier), the only African American doctor in a busy county hospital. The way he initially shrugs off a string of clumsy racist insults from one of two brothers he is called to attend in the prison ward makes the nature of his working environment clear. He concentrates instead on the other brother's fading consciousness; but when his patient dies after a lumbar puncture the racial slurs from his first tormentor, Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark), grow more and more hysterical, ending in an accusation of murder and a threat of revenge.
Brooks wants an autopsy to prove that his actions were right. Biddle denies permission, and the young doctor alternately questions his own competence and then rages against this perceived injustice.
Poitier's Brooks is reflective and prone to self doubt, making him a more believable screen doctor than many. He is also one of noticeably few black Hollywood medics, and his three dimensional character marked an emerging departure from the flat portrayals of black people that film studios had previously preferred.
There is nothing subtle, however, about the Biddle character or the film's message. On its release in New York it shocked audiences into silence, and today the vile language spat out by Biddle is deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why the film hasn't made many appearances on network television; certainly it received short shrift in the southern states, and many cinemas refused to show it.
Although some critics praised its blunt approach (“Sometimes the sting of the club makes more of an impression than appeals to the intellect,” wrote one reviewer) it remains a rather melodramatic film, and Biddle's shocking outbursts could easily be dismissed as crazed ravings rather than an incisive comment on society.
The chief resident's comment that “I'm just pro-good doctor—black, white, or polka dot” speaks volumes of what Mankiewicz thought the audience of the time needed to hear, and it is historical insights of this sort that make it such an interesting film.
Film released 1950