The 1963 movie “Lilies of the Field” was adapted by James Poe from William Edmund Barrett’s 1962 eponymous novel. Starring Sidney Poitier and directed by Ralph Nelson, it won Poitier a Best Actor Oscar–a first for an African American as Best Actor and the second for any acting role (the first being Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress for the 1939 “Gone with the Wind”).
Poitier is Homer Smith, a nomadic handyman who once had dreams of being an architect. Driving through Arizona in a time before air conditioning in cars, he runs out of water for his car. Noticing a small settlement, he goes to get water from the well and meets five East German Catholic nuns led by Mother Maria (Lilia Skala). Only Maria can speak English and she bids Homer to fix their roof. He expected to be paid, telling the Mother Superior, “The laborer is worthy of his hire” ( Luke 10:7), but the nuns have little money and are subsisting on bread and eggs. She replies to him, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Sermon on the Mount).
Smith stays long enough to be invited to Sunday mass with Mother Maria telling him he’ll be driving the sisters to the service. He’s invited but declines because he is Baptist. He discovers the Latino population have no building and the service is in the open, conducted by a traveling priest, Father Murphy (Dan Frazer). From the owner (Stanley Adams) of the trading post where Smith gets breakfast, he learns the story of the nuns.
Smith at first helps them supplement their meals by working part-time for a white construction contractor (Nelson). Smith begins building a chapel and the neighbors, mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos, who had been indifferent to the frosty nuns, begin to provide both materials and labor.
Smith and Maria are alike in their inability to express gratefulness, but Smith finally gets to be an architect. Maria gets her church and the local priest, Father Murphy (Dan Frazer) is humbled. Yet Maria, still to proud to give thanks to someone other than God, still has ideas of what Smith should do. He slips away into the night, having been an architect for God, leaving for an unknown destination, far away from the stern gaze of Mother Maria.
In this case, we have a black savior, an African American man helping foreigners fit in and the poor Latino population get a proper church. Desert dwellers might question the folly of a man running out of water in the desert or trying to raise crops on the infertile dirt, but this is a lovely movie, crisply shot in black and white. The movie was filmed in Tucson, AZ and is currently streaming as part of Amazon Prime.