This exuberant autobiography takes us through movie director Norman Jewison’s entire career, from the fluffy Doris Day comedies of his early years to his most powerful dramas. Over more than forty years, he has made films that are not only highly entertaining, but at times manage to make a valuable moral statement about the world.
Jewison, who was born in Canada in 1927, describes a pivotal moment in his life when, after World War II, he traveled through the American South in his Canadian military uniform and was browbeaten by a bus driver after he, not understanding the system of segregation, chose to sit in the back of a bus. The incident made a powerful impact on him, and eventually resulted in a determination to portray the ugliness of racial injustice cinematically. The outcome of this determination is a collection of groundbreaking movies which illuminate the inequities in an America divided into black and white.
Jewison’s powerful 1967 drama In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as strong, outspoken black Philadelphia police detective Virgil Tibbs, who ends up stranded at a Mississippi train depot in the middle of the night. When a wealthy factory owner is murdered, Tibbs is hauled in for questioning and ends up collaborating with chief of police Bill Gillespie to solve the crime. The entire film crackles with racial tension as Tibbs comes up against dangerously violent citizens stirred up by the businessman’s death and Tibbs’ powerful and unyielding presence.
Jewison expressed doubts about being able to get the movie made to Senator Robert F. Kennedy; Kennedy urged him to persist, saying, “The time is right for a movie like this.” Kennedy was right; the film was received with critical acclaim and recognized as revolutionary for its time, the first portrayal of a strong, independent black man who did not back down in the face of white aggression.
Jewison has continued to make pointed statements about race; in the 1984 A Soldier’s Story, an Army investigator (Howard Rollins) looks into the murder of an unpopular black sergeant in the South; the 1999 drama The Hurricane, depicts the true story of boxer Hurricane Carter’s conviction and imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, and the man’s ultimate vindication.
Jewison’s cinematic range covers just about every genre. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1966) is a hilarious and touching account of a Russian submarine which beaches itself on a sandbar off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. Part of the crew goes ashore and causes a panic among the island’s residents; when the rest of the crew manages to free the submarine, it ends up tooling into the town harbor, threatening a violent confrontation which is averted when the islanders and the Russians must work together to save a small boy from danger. The movie was a resounding success in the Soviet Union as well as in the U.S., and may have done as much for détente between the two superpowers as any politician in either country.
Moonstruck (1987), an off-beat romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicholas Cage; In Country (1989), a brooding analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War on an emotionally damaged vet (Bruce Willis) and his niece (Emily Lloyd), herself an orphan of a soldier who didn’t make it home; The Cincinnati Kid (1965), in which Edward G. Robinson and Steve McQueen face off in a gritty and psychologically intense poker game are all markedly different from each other, as are all his movies. One trait each of Jewison’s movies does have in common with all the others is a deep understanding and sympathy for human nature; even his villains exhibit a depth and a complexity uncommon in moviemaking.
The book contains inside info on the making of each of Jewison’s movies and plenty of fascinating tidbits about the actors and other celebrities he’s dealt with over the years. The result is a book which offers insight into the author, a great overview of his movies, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire and frequently contributes to Tips and Topics. She has published numerous articles in local and regional publications on a wide range of topics, including business, education, the arts, and local events. Her feature articles include an interview with independent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a feature on prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.