Revisiting the Canon: For Love of Ivy

by Guest Contributor shani-o, originally published at Postbourgie

(The whole thing is on YouTube, who knew?)

I don’t expect you to have ever heard of For Love of Ivy. I hadn’t heard of it until a couple of years ago, one night when I was hanging out with my dad and we were trolling On Demand for something to watch.

So, as we resurrect “Revisiting The Canon” here at PB, I realize this is an out-of-place choice. This movie isn’t actually in the black canon, like previous entries Boyz In The Hood, Eve’s Bayou, and Idlewild. But it is a black movie, in the sense that it features two black leads, and was cowritten by one of the greatest stars of the 60s, Sidney Poitier. Also, it’s old, and definitely worth revisiting.

Spoilers ahead.

Allow me to lay the scene. The story revolves around the Austin family that owns a department store and lives in a beautiful home out on Long Island. Father, mother, hippie son Tim, and popular daughter Gena. And their maid, the titular Ivy Moore, played by Abbey Lincoln.

The plot is a simple twist on The Taming of the Shrew. Ivy, an uneducated woman in her late twenties, has been with the Austins for nearly 10 years. She wants to move into New York City to attend secretarial school, which would force them to hire another maid. The Austin patriarch, a pre-Archie Bunker Carroll O’Connor, couldn’t care less (“Hire another maid!”), but the mother, and two adult children are devastated, and try to convince her to stay.

The children, Tim (a very young Beau Bridges) and Gena, who seem to live at home and work in the department store, decide that what Ivy really needs is a man. Tim comes to this conclusion after figuring out what the biggest difference between Gena and Ivy is (“What’s color got to do with it?” Gena wonders): male suitors. Gena has several boyfriends, and Ivy none. The implication here, of course, is that a woman like Ivy doesn’t need any education if she gets some attention from a man. (As an aside: at one point, when the attractive Gena enters the stockroom of the store, all the men look up in admiration. Tim says to the room: “Alright guys, you’ve all seen Gena naked before.” This is never explained, and Gena’s sexuality is played in an odd, but nonjudgmental, way later in the film, as well.)

Tim blackmails Jack Parks (played by Poitier), a trucking business owner who has an account with the Austins, into taking Ivy out. Parks runs the day operation — shipping goods — while his partner runs the night operation, a casino truck for illegal gambling. But Parks doesn’t want the night operation exposed, so he very reluctantly agrees to meet Ivy. He’s educated and sophisticated, and looks down on Ivy as just another ignorant colored girl who wants to get married. Tim selected Jack precisely because he knows Parks will never propose and take Ivy away from the family.

When Jack, strongarmed, comes to dinner, there’s this nutty bit of dialogue that I just had to transcribe. It’s about 10 times more awkward than it reads:

Gena: Tell me, Mr. Parks, what do you think of the Black Power Movement?
Jack: I think about it…a lot.
Gena [awkward smile]: Ah. And do you approve of it?
Jack: I don’t…talk…about it.
Gena [awkward smile]: Ah.

[Tim enters with coffee.]

Jack: Thank you.
Gena: Ivy goes to a lot of civil rights meetings, don’t you, Ivy?
Ivy: Once in a while. It’s a place sometimes to meet people.
Tim: I was in an elevator once with Ralph Bunche. He stepped on my foot.
Jack [disdainfully]: That can be a problem when you don’t wear shoes.
Tim: No, he said “excuse me.”
Gena [proudly]: I’ve been on a lot of picket lines and things. In fact, I was even in jail once overnight, because I refused bail.

[Awkward silence.]

Gena: Ivy belongs to the NAACP, don’t you, Ivy?

At this point, Ivy excuses herself, and Gena follows her out. Saying what we’ve all been thinking, Ivy snaps at Gena, “Just because he’s colored, do you have to talk about colored things?” She adds: “Why did you make me sit in the living room like that? You know I never do that!”

But Ivy warms to Jack, and ends up going out with him, on the grounds that a date with him will be an ‘interesting’ experience for her to remember. By their second date, the magical properties of her vagina have led him to fall in love with her.

Abbey Lincoln, a truly underrated jazz singer, is compelling as Ivy, the maid who doesn’t want to die “ignorant and alone.” The privileged Tim and Gena are both amusing in their seeming goodwill, and frustrating in their selfishness. The parents fall a bit flat, but the story isn’t really about them.

But, of course, the real star in this film is Poitier. He gets to stalk the sets while being scored by Quincy Jones. He gets to be hostile and superior — something he does very well — and he gets to say things like “I got news for you, Charlie: slavery’s been abolished, maaaan” and “When you’re not thinking of me as the uppity spade with the trucks!” *finger snap*. And he gets to be the best-dressed man in the film. Also, I freely admit, this is the first Poitier film where I cocked my head to the side and said to myself: “yeah, now I get his, um, appeal.”

It’s clear that For Love of Ivy is trying to be progressive. And for its time, it mostly succeeds. The freedom for Gena to date whomever she wants is contrasted with the idea that loneliness is Ivy’s problem. Tim’s acknowledgment that he’s not good enough for Ivy himself gets played against the fact that he calls Jack Parks a “spade.” Ivy’s desire for independence is eventually solved by Jack’s marriage proposal, in which she leaves the Austin’s home for Jack’s.

I don’t know that this film could’ve been any better. In many ways, it’s a strange little piece of celluloid, and it speaks to its time in a way that’s very similar to Poitier’s great race film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner did. But it serves to remind me that little has changed in Hollywood in the last 40 years. And in fact, I’d argue that things have regressed a bit. For Love of Ivy is a romcom from 1968, when Poitier was one of the biggest drama stars in the world. Today, Will Smith is the arguably the biggest action/drama/romcom star in the world. But I doubt Smith would or could create anything so bizarre and forward-thinking as this.