• Onalee McGraw

No Way Out (1950): Seeking Moral Truth For Life's Hard Questions

Updated: Aug 12, 2020


No Way Out, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was made in 1950, a decade before the civil rights movement began. This breakthrough film unearths fear and hatred as the emotional roots of racism. Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, and Linda Darnell map the geography of good and evil in a town torn by racial divisions.

“To understand the miracle of moral communities that grow beyond the bounds of kinship we must look not just at people, and not just at the relationships among people, but at the complete environment within which those relationships are embedded, and which makes those people more virtuous (however they themselves define that term). It takes a great deal of outside-the-mind-stuff to support a moral community.”

-Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind


Jonathan Haidt, argues that “innate psychological systems form the foundation of intuitive ethics” across all cultures. As a graduate student, Haidt visited an Indian village and this experience initiated a career in psychology studying how human beings form moral judgments. Haidt’s research found moral foundations across cultures that feature opposite poles of the moral emotions we all as human beings must invariably confront. We integrated Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory with a civics lesson with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in a previous article. Below, in this post we integrate his Moral Foundations Theory with No Way Out.


Our premise is that storytelling, generally speaking, is more compelling for the human psyche than abstract appeals to reason. This premise is confirmed by the neurological studies of Paul Zak. Zak found that people are more deeply moved by stories to be empathetic towards others. Classic movie storytelling has the potential to bring people together to engage in productive conversations about the things that matter most. The greatest of these films are cinematic works of art, cherished from a time of greater unity in our cultural past. No Way Out helps us to overcome our differences and explore at a deeper level the answers to racial questions that divide and vex us.


Joseph L. Mankiewicz made three remarkable films for which he wrote the screenplay and directed: A Letter to Three Wives (1949), No Way Out (1950) and All About Eve (1951). All three films are models of film-making in the mode of Classic Realism. Classic Realism is the philosophy of storytelling in which the moral decisions of the characters drive the plot. No Way Out is a breakthrough film that confronted racism in a time when America was reluctant to have this conversation.


Sidney Poitier, in his very first film, plays a young doctor who is threatened by a psychopathic racist played by Richard Widmark. Widmark did not want to play this role but agreed to it for the greater good that could come from a film dramatizing the evil of racism and its harmful impact on society. No Way Out illustrates how a truly great film, especially in the hands of a talented director and writer like Mankiewicz, conveys certain transcendent and immaterial realities of human nature. The film manages, especially in the last scene, to make concrete the meaning of the universal concept of human dignity.


Dr. Brooks, played by Poitier, is persecuted throughout the film by the racist Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark). Suddenly, in the final scene he is the only person who can save Ray Biddle’s life. Edie (played by Linda Darnell) says that the man is “nothing but a mad dog” and deserves to die. Poitier’s character says otherwise. He tells her: “I’ve got to live, too.” In saying this, he affirms the timeless standard of virtue that was so long ago expressed in Sophocles’ Antigone. Honor and the Good are chosen over self-preservation by Brooks and Edie, just like Antigone gives up her life to disobey the king and bury her brother.

Can we contribute to the rebuilding of a national moral community with Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out? Jonathan Haidt has challenged his fellow citizens to start building vital moral and social capital to repair our broken civil society.


Mankiewicz probes the depths of the mind of a psychopathic racist to the point of revealing his soul. Throughout the film Ray Biddle (played brilliantly by Richard Widmark) is trying to destroy Dr. Luther Brooks, and in the final scenes his spiritual sickness is fully exposed.




MAKING MORAL CAPITAL GAINS WITH CIVICS LESSONS FROM NO WAY OUT

Discussing the film’s themes and characters gives us, across the generations, a way of finding deeper meaning and purpose in the phrase that opens the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Many skeptics and cynics may have grave doubts that recovery of greater civility across political tribal lines is really possible in our time. Can we overcome the radical individualism of our present era and rediscover our essential nature as social beings?


In The Righteous Mind (2012) moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls for a national renewal of moral capital to rebuild civility in a divided nation. Haidt defines moral capital as “the resources that sustain a moral community.” Using the metaphor of a beehive, Haidt argues that among political tribes cooperation and work for the common good is possible and that we can undertake significant rebuilding of our dwindling moral, social and cultural capital. Looking at the violence and cultural divisions we experience today, we realize that, as Haidt reminds us, moral communities are “fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.” As he says:

“Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. When we think about very large communities such as nations, the challenge is extraordinary and the threat of moral entropy is intense……if you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identifies, institutions, and technologies that increase it.”


Ahead of its time when it was made, No Way Out renews in our divided world an understanding of the universal nature of human dignity. Discussing the film’s themes and characters gives us a way to share with the rising generation a sense human identity and the common humanity we share with others.

INTEGRATING NO WAY OUT WITH MORAL FOUNDATIONS THEORY

The innate pillars of moral intuition described in The Righteous Mind are groundbreaking in our postmodern world - a world where the question of whether there is a human nature is up for grabs. Each pillar of the theory has been validated by scientific inquiry. Liberals and conservatives alike can intuitively and reasonably assume there are no hidden political or religious agendas lurking beneath the surface of Moral Foundations Theory.

Compelling images of some of these foundations, as they appear in No Way Out, including “Care,” “Liberty,” “Loyalty,” and “Authority” are illustrated below.


Care vs. Harm

Haidt has found that the moral emotions of human beings are deeply sensitive in the sphere of Care vs. Harm. People naturally become deeply disturbed and sorrowful at the sight of a person suffering from harm. In No Way Out Linda Darnell’s character, who was raised in a racist environment, becomes deeply disturbed at the sight of the violence and injury she sees in a race riot. Her deep sorrow is intensified by her knowledge that her own actions have contributed to the riot.


The Foundation of Liberty and the Importance of Friendship

To live in a free society, objective standards of right and wrong and good and evil must be seen and valued by enough people to keep the whole experiment in liberty going. The republic cannot survive by relying on a bureaucracy to manage the constant conflict of tribal interest groups. Rather, it is working on a team and being “part of the whole”- as Haidt, citing Durkheim, would argue – that makes all the difference. The film's turning point is the conversation between two women who cross racial barriers and discover that they have the same moral perspective on human nature and what is important in life.


Loyalty vs. Betrayal

One of the features of No Way Out that makes it so contemporary is its realistic treatment of tribal conflict. Poitier's character witnesses the fierce and blind tribal loyalty of angry whites who cannot even see that as a doctor he is there to help their relatives. When an angry white woman spits in his face, he knows he must take strategic action to avoid persecution for a crime he has not committed.


Authority vs. Subversion

No Way Out, breaking new ground on racial issues in 1950, conveys the necessity for authority and order in civil society. As Haidt points out, authority is seen in hierarchy. One of the reasons why the white racist in the story becomes so angry is that the black doctor clearly has been given authority over him. This causes him to insist that the doctor is personally responsible for the death of his brother. The wrongly accused doctor in turn gives himself up to law enforcement authority. As a result, the doctor is cleared of any wrongdoing. Joseph Mankiewicz’s script clearly dramatizes a truth sadly eroding in our culture today: right and wrong are not determined by what political or religious tribe we belong to, but by an objective standard that members of all tribes can recognize and live by.

Overcoming the Us vs. Them Mentality

Building on the film’s themes, we need to share with the rising generation a more positive view of human dignity. To elevate human dignity in our world today, we must be willing to engage in conversations with people who do not agree with us. We must try to remain calm when group conflict causes emotions to boil over. We can look for common ground and find solutions working through the conflict.



Years later, at the American Film Institute, Richard Widmark paid tribute Sydney Poitier, and spoke of their lifelong friendship.

Widmark pays tribute to Poitier




Paul Zak: Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling - Harvard Business Review


Liberty And Justice For All Study Guide


No Way Out Spotlight Study Guide


The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

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