Sidney Poitier’s Warm DecemberApril 24, 2009
I’ve been on a bit of a Sidney Poitier kick lately, inspired by reading Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris’s indispensable book about the five films nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture in 1967, two of which—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night—starred the great Sir Sidney. I’ve enjoyed watching him, even in hokey pieces like Lilies of the Field and To Sir, With Love, but never more so than in this obscure 1973 London-set romance which I Netflixed purely on the basis of this poster. Poitier plays a brilliant, widowed DC “ghetto doctor” who travels with his 10-year-old daughter to London to race motorcycles (as one does) and falls in love with the alluring, beautiful and doomed niece of the ambassador from Torunda, a fictional East African nation.
A Warm December, just released on DVD for the first time (and seemingly only to pad out the Sidney Poitier Collection that it’s included in), was Poitier’s second film as a director. His first, the western Buck and the Preacher (1972), he had taken over the reins of midway through production. December was a flop, but Poitier went on to become a hugely succesful comic director, helming vehicles for Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder and for 20 years holding the record for the highest grossing film by an African-American director for 1980’s Stir Crazy, until Keenan Ivory Wayans bested him with Scary Movie in 2000. A Warm December, a rather corny and quite touching weepie, is shot like a TV movie, with zooms galore and a terribly dated score, but Poitier never aspired to be Jacques Rivette (despite his occasional experimenting with non-synchronous sound).
What interest A Warm December has, beyond its very charismatic leads, is mostly incidental: its London setting with its Afro-centric enclaves, a succession of fabulous patterned shirts (mostly worn by Poitier, except when he’s walking around with his shirt off), and its plot revolving around international diplomacy, motor-cross racing, hydro-electric dams and sickle cell anemia. There is also a wonderful performance by South African singer Letta Mbulu singing a Miriam Makeba song. And, best of all, a scene in a nightclub where Poitier and Esther Anderson dance to an Afro-funk outfit called Zubaba. Zubaba, it turns out, is the band formerly known as Symarip, best known for their 1969 ska anthem “Skinhead Moonstomp.”