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Sidney Poitier Was a Giant of the Screen

Sidney Poitier was more than an icon for his civil rights activism and for “paving the way” for black actors to follow. He was a master of his craft, and one of the greatest performers of all time.

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love (1967). (Columbia Pictures)

Who doesn’t mourn the passing of the brilliant Sidney Poitier?

Tributes have been pouring in to celebrate his trailblazing career as the first black male star in American film history, and as a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, and as the recipient of innumerable awards for his many acting and human rights contributions. These include the Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field in 1964 — the first black performer to win an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel got Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind in 1939 — a British knighthood in 1974, and the Medal of Freedom in 2009. “Groundbreaking” is the most-used word in celebrating the life of Poitier, and no one can deny that he earned it.

But it would hurt me to think that he’s mainly remembered in solemn terms as an important figure because he “paved the way” for other black actors to follow, though it’s undeniable that he did. As Denzel Washington put it when he got his own Best Actor Oscar for Training Day in 2002, the first black man after Poitier to win the award, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I’d rather do. . . .”

But focusing so much on his historical importance feels rather dutiful, and there’s no need to be dutiful about Sidney Poitier. The main thing to remember is that he was a fabulous movie star. He was blindingly handsome, brainy, magnetic, smooth, suave, humorous, and most notably, able to convey a core of serious ethical strength in the face of every kind of attack that made him ideally suited to leading man roles. He had a marvelous glare of righteous fury, and what a voice — a husky, expressive baritone that made for memorable line readings. Just listen to him playing a hardworking handyman ordering a big breakfast after not having a square meal in days in Lilies of the Field — the gravity of his order, with just an edge of gleeful anticipation, dwelling on mounds of eggs, sausages, and toast, and gallons of coffee and orange juice — “I said fresh squeezed!”

It was wonderful to see Poitier humanize himself in films with earthy moments of humor and appetite, because otherwise he could seem almost too good to be true. It’s well known that he was the child of poor Bahamian tomato farmers, and he liked to tell the stories of arriving in America with three dollars in his pocket and working as a janitor at the American Negro Theatre just so he could get a foot in the door there. But from the beginning, on film, he always looked like a prince in exile — well, if princes had ever been the superior beings they were advertised to be, that is. So tall, so beautifully proportioned, so graceful, and he wore clothes like a dream. He was godlike even in a white T-shirt and jeans, and no one but Cary Grant could wear a suit with as much effortless distinction as Poitier.

His very perfections made him useful to the American film industry at a troubled time. The civil rights era of the 1950s and early ’60s had Hollywood studios experimenting with attempts to make major movie stars of black talent. Dorothy Dandridge was one briefly successful attempt, and another was Poitier’s great friend Harry Belafonte. Poitier would ultimately become the first really major, lasting black film star, not only because of his tremendous charisma and talent, but also because he could believably be cast as the “Ebony Saint,” a figure of impeccable virtue and dignity, as in one of his most famous roles, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Director Stanley Kramer admitted that the strategy of this comedy about a proposed interracial marriage was to present a black man so flawlessly admirable, only a racist could object to him as a son-in-law.

Ultimately, the strategy that helped make him a big star increasingly alienated outspoken members of the black community and rendered him obsolete as a leading man by the 1970s, though he went on to a successful career as a director.

It wasn’t well-remembered by critics of Poitier’s star persona that he’d actually played quite varied roles in his career. He wasn’t always cast as a brilliant, affluent, internationally acclaimed doctor doing altruistic work for the World Health Organization who’s also the picture of sensitivity and understanding as a fiancé, as in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. In Blackboard Jungle (1955), he played a tough high school student who’s the ringleader of the juvenile delinquents making the idealistic new teacher (Glenn Ford) wish he’d picked a different profession. In The Defiant Ones (1958), he played a desperate rural convict escaping from prison shackled to a white racist (Tony Curtis). In A Raisin in the Sun (1961), he played the electrifying role he originated on Broadway, as an angry, frustrated working-class family man struggling against all odds to make a better life for himself and his family.

Poitier was a hot contender for stardom from his first role in No Way Out (1950), a film noir costarring Richard Widmark. Writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz saw early on in Poitier many of the qualities that would define his star persona, such as his ability to project a questing intelligence and a moral strength that can withstand tremendous pressure. Poitier was playing the first black doctor at an urban county hospital who has the bad luck to treat a pair of prisoners wounded in a botched robbery, one of whom dies. His brother, a vicious racist played by Widmark, blames the doctor and goes relentlessly on the attack against him. (Widmark, famous for his scene-stealing ability to play scary psychotics in film noir, was actually a kindly ex-teacher who apologized profusely to Poitier after practically every take for all the terrible slurs he had to hurl at him.)

Poitier memorably played intense scenes of anxiety and insecurity in No Way Out, such as when he confesses to his wife the financial and emotional pressure of knowing he’s got to succeed as a doctor after she’s supported him all through medical school, or conveys his awareness that he has only one real supporter at the hospital — the other administrators will be watching him for every possible mistake. But this was the first of many films in which Poitier endured vitriolic racist attacks, verbal as well as physical, with what would become his trademark burning-eyed stoicism, to the increasing discontent of many in the black community. Poitier said that his own mother, when she finally saw No Way Out, stood up and shouted at the screen, “Hit him back, Sidney! Hit him back! You never did nothing to him!”

James Baldwin reported in The Devil Finds Work that black audiences chafed at aspects of Poitier’s onscreen behaviors that seemed designed to placate white audiences. For example, at the end of The Defiant Ones, after the convicts have severed their shackles and become friends, Poitier’s character manages to run fast enough to hop a moving freight train that will take him to freedom, but his pal can’t make it. According to Baldwin,

Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. . . . The Harlem audience was outraged and yelled, Get back on the train you fool!

It was in 1967 that black playwright Clifford Mason wrote an editorial, published in the New York Times, demanding to know “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Mason charged that Poitier’s entire acting career was demeaning:

In all of these films he has been a showcase [N-word], who is given a clean suit and a complete purity of motivation so that, like a mistreated puppy, he has all the sympathy on his side and all those mean whites are just so many Simon Legrees.

Ironically, 1967 was the year in which Poitier began to make films that seemed to be answering the charges against him. In the Heat of the Night, in which he played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective assigned to help an out-of-his-depth rural Mississippi cop (Rod Steiger), Poitier’s character demands respect from white bigots calling him “boy” and worse, saying that where he comes from, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

The line became part of the marketing of the film, and the title of the sequel to the film, as memorable in its way as the famous slap heard ’round the world. When Poitier as Tibbs was slapped by a white plantation owner he was questioning and immediately slapped him back, the advance word went around that the movie was a must-see for that unprecedented scene alone. Poitier claimed he insisted on his character’s violent response to violence in the scene.

According to In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison, who remained a lifelong friend and admirer of Poitier, some of the behind-the-scenes bigotry was every bit as dramatic as what was happening onscreen. Poitier had initially made it clear that he would not shoot the film, set in Mississippi, anywhere in the South. Poitier’s participation in the Civil Rights movement was widely known, and he and his longtime friend Harry Belafonte had suffered threats in the Mississippi Delta when delivering funds to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1964.

In deference to Poitier’s wishes, most of the film was shot along the Mississippi River but in Illinois. The exception was a sequence set in cotton fields that Jewison needed and couldn’t get up north. In the small Tennessee town chosen as the four-day location, it was impossible to get a room for Poitier in the town’s only hotel, which bore a sign on the door saying “Whites Only.”

The whole cast and crew had to travel to a nearby Holiday Inn that would accommodate Poitier, but they were still subjected to racist terrorizing by locals who drove there in pickup trucks to shout, honk their horns, and generally raise hell. Alarmed, Jewison assembled the biggest crew members to guard Poitier’s room. As Jewison tells it, he assured Poitier, “Don’t worry, Sidney. We got it under control. We’ll protect you. Everything will be fine.”

And Poitier replied, “I got a gun under my pillow, and I’m going to blow away the first guy that comes through that door.”

This was happening at the acme of Poitier’s acting career. In 1967, three of his most star-defining hits were released: In the Heat of the Night, To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Poitier’s real-life steeliness, had it been more widely known, might have made a difference in his reputation at the time.

The other major area of frustration in Poitier’s acting career involved love scenes, or the lack of them. His tremendous allure as a romantic leading man was handled as anxiously if it were dynamite. For example, in Lilies of the Field, Poitier played a roving handyman named Homer Smith opposite a whole gaggle of nuns who at first enlist his help with a few odd jobs but end up demanding that he build them a chapel. Casting him in a narrative with nuns was one of many ingenious ways of preventing Poitier from onscreen romances or physical interactions between himself and any attractive costars. The Slender Thread, for example, features Poitier as a college student volunteering to man a suicide hotline, trying to save the life of a woman caller (Anne Bancroft) who’s taken an overdose and wants to talk to someone before she dies.

Even when it came to film projects with love affairs included in the narratives, Poitier would often be angry and disappointed to find out they were rewritten or edited later to remove any sexual content. A kissing scene between his character and an illiterate, abused blind woman (Elizabeth Hartman) whom he’s helping in A Patch of Blue (1965) was cut. The author of the autobiographical novel that was the source material for To Sir, With Love, E.R. Braithwaite, disliked the smash-hit film version because of what he considered its excessive sentimentality, plus the timid way it avoided the romance he’d written about with a fellow teacher, who was white.

And even when Poitier managed to play a character with a sex life, as in Paris Blues (1961), about the jazz scene in Paris and two couples embroiled in it, one black and one white, it too was watered down. The source material was actually about interracial couples. Such a cultural context conveys how Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? could ever have been considered controversial or daring. In its first scene, Poitier and his white fiancée kiss passionately in the back seat of a taxi, gaped at by the astonished taxi driver.

But even if you made Poitier’s characters celibate in movies, there was no way to make him less gorgeous than he was. It’s a particular pleasure now to go back and look at Poitier’s films, outside of the crucible of his own time of major stardom, just to watch how easily he controls the screen, and to linger over his dazzling gifts. A number of his major films, such as Lilies of the Field and To Sir, With Love, might represent peak sentimental liberalism, but they’re also riveting as star vehicles. And now that the issue of Poitier’s “perfect” star image is a less fraught and painful one, if only because he “paved the way” for a number of black Hollywood stars representing a much wider range of human behaviors and characteristics including all their faults and frailties, we can revel in his rare exquisiteness.