This week on Feminist Flashback Friday, we take a trip back to 1961 to catch up with Gordon Ralfe from Guy Green’s beautiful and emotional drama, A Patch of Blue.
Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier) is a black man in 1960s America—when Jim Crow was in affect and racial tensions were high—who meets a white girl named Selina (Elizabeth Hartman) who is visually impaired. Gordon happens upon Selina one day when Selina manages to secretly escape to the park with the help of her employer, and the two strike up a friendship that may or may not turn into romance.
Selina is completely helpless due to her disability, which came about when her prostitute mother threw some corrosive substance at her john, who ducked causing Selina to take the blow full in the face. Selina is regularly physically and verbally abused by her mother and verbally abused by her grandfather, both of whom she lives with (though her grandfather occasionally shows her fleeting moments of kindness). Thanks to their selfishness, Selina only knows how to get about in the tiny no-bedroom apartment the three share and hasn’t learned how to be independent.
Gordon finds all this out during their meetings in the park, which begin to happen regularly, and is appalled and angered by the wasted life Selina has lived at the hands of her selfish, uncaring family. He vows to get her into a special school for the visually impaired, but doesn’t seriously act on this idea until Selina nonchalantly recalls a time when she was raped by one of her mother’s clients.
Why Is He A Badass?
Gordon never, ever feels pity for Selina. He sympathizes with her unfortunate life, made doubly unfortunate by her blindness, but never feels sorry for her. Instead, he takes the little time they have together to teach her some very basic tips to become more independent. He starts by teaching her to familiarize herself with the park and eventually teaches her how to use her existing four senses to their full potential.
Selina—never having had the chance to get to know a person so intimately—inevitably begins to fall for Gordon. When she recounts how her mother would no longer let her play with her only girlhood friend because the girl was black, Gordon is afraid. Selina’s racist and violent mother doesn’t know that Selina spends her afternoons publicly walking with a black man—in fact, Selina herself doesn’t know it.
Despite all this, Gordon perseveres and somehow does it without taking advantage of Selina or her feelings for him. He continues to help her become more and more independent and does eventually get her into a school for the blind, but his romantic feelings for her (if there are any) are never apparent, which means that everything he does is for the betterment of Selina’s life only. This not only makes him an admirable man, but an admirable human being—one who practises empathy despite living in a society that seldom shows any to him.
Why Does He Still Matter Today?
The fact that Gordon helps Selina for the sole sake of helping her is refreshing to see not only in films, but anywhere in life. The tired and sexist trope that men will only help or be nice to women if they want to sleep with them is thrown out the window here. Even when people in Gordon’s life blatantly suggest as much, he doesn’t even pretend for the sake of his ego nor does he furiously deny the accusations. Instead, he refuses to engage and concentrates on what’s important: helping Selina.
Selina’s handicap is also crucial in showing Gordon’s character. He doesn’t see her as useless or helpless—he sees her as fully capable and just missing some education. Selina has never been to a public school, let alone one specially designed for people with special needs. Gordon wants to help her by being the friend that she desperately needs and by setting her on the path to independence.
Gordon Ralfe is a reminder that those with physical disabilities should be treated with the respect that’s afforded to able-bodied people. By treating Selina as a human being rather than a “cripple,” Gordon not only injects a boost of self-confidence in her, but also allows her to break away from her unhappy life by realizing that she could have it so much better. If only we could all remember that humans are humans are humans and ought to always be treated as such.