CBC Digital Archives

Not your typical film director

"Film is the literature of this generation," says Toronto-born Norman Jewison. Small wonder then the Oscar-winning director is considered a Laureate of the film lens and is a fierce supporter of the Canadian film industry. Responsible for such classics as In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof, Jewison cut his teeth in television at the CBC before moving to Hollywood where he became a maverick director who wowed audiences with his storytelling prowess.

media clip
"A lot of my films deal with social conditions, problems that we face," Jewison admits in this radio clip. Race (In The Heat of the Night), anti-Semitism (Fiddler on the Roof), Cold War hysteria (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), the rise of the labour movement (F.I.S.T.)... these are just some of the themes that dominate Jewison's landmark 'message-films'. CBC Radio's The Arts Today examines how Jewison's leftist politics shine though in his movies and how he uses film as a vehicle not only to entertain, but to address the burning social issues and injustices of the day.
• In a 1997 interview with the CBC's Life & Times, Jewison explained why race became a prevailing theme in his films: "I hitchhiked through the South when I was about 18 and I saw apartheid, and I saw a segregated country. That was hard for me to understand that. And I think my fascination with all the southern states and the separation of the races and the race problem, a lot of those images I used in films like In The Heat of the Night."

• In 1959 Jewison directed Tonight With Belafonte — The Revlon Review, a CBS television special starring Harry Belafonte. Belafonte made history, becoming the first African-American to win an Emmy, beating out Dinah Shore and Fred Astaire to win the award for Outstanding Performance in a variety or musical program. Even though 27 southern CBS affiliates refused to show the program, Belafonte's Emmy — coming during the height of segregation and the civil rights movement in the U.S. — is still considered a watershed moment in television history.

• Jewison's first 'message-film', The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), was made at the height of the Cold War. The movie tells the story of a Soviet submarine that runs aground off the coast of a small island in Maine. The Russian crew tries to enlist the help of the local townspeople but mass hysteria ensues as they are convinced the Russians are there to invade. The film picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

• Jewison tackles racism in the classic In The Heat of the Night (1967), featuring Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia detective arrested for the murder of a prominent white man in a southern town, simply because he is black. He is released and ends up working on the case with the local redneck sheriff (Rod Steiger). The film won Best Picture and Steiger won Best Actor in a Leading Role. Although nominated for Best Director, Jewison lost out to Mike Nichols (The Graduate).

• Jewison deals with anti-Semitism in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), an adaptation of the famous musical. Haim Topol plays Tevye the Milkman, a Jewish peasant in pre-Revolutionary Russia, who struggles to maintain his Jewish traditions in the face of state-sanctioned programs. The film received a Best Picture nomination, and Jewison collected his second Best Director nod.

A Soldier's Story (1984), originally a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Charles Fuller, is the story of the murder of a black soldier on a military base in a predominantly white town in the Deep South and the African-American attorney who is assigned to investigate. The film received a Best Picture nomination and Adolf Caesar was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

• The final film in Jewison's 'race trilogy', Hurricane (1999) tells the real life story of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, an African-American boxer who was arrested and convicted of murder in 1967. A group of Canadians look into his case and help him get a new trial, resulting in him being released from prison in 1985 when a judge ruled he was wrongfully imprisoned. Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Carter.
Medium: Radio
Program: The Arts Today
Broadcast Date: Oct. 23, 2000
Guest(s): Norman Jewison
Host: Mary Hynes
Reporter: Seth Feldman

Last updated: March 23, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

The Wrath of Hurricane Hazel

On Oct. 15, 1954, the most famous hurricane in Canadian history struck Southern Ontario. Hurri...

Robert Lepage: Canada's Renaissance Man

Director, writer, actor Robert Lepage is one of Canada's most renowned figures in performing a...

1959: Deadly hurricane strikes Escuminac, N.B...

A vicious hurricane strikes the Gulf of St. Lawrence, killing 35 and devastating the town of E...

Documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis

Avi Lewis, director of The Take, reveals a passion for creative alternatives to globalization.

The City of Toronto names a park after Norman...

Norman Jewison talks to reporters about the honour of having a park named for him, and Toronto...