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The career of Sidney Poitier
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Sidney Poitier and How He Paved the Way for Black Actors in Film

Sidney Poitier: Hollywood Trailblazer

As problematic as race relations are today – and make no mistake, they are – it’s still hard for anyone who grew up in, say, the last fifty years to understand just how touchy the entertainment business could be about the topic.

For instance:

It’s September 1963.  Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, two writers working on The Dick Van Dyke Show came up with a story where Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) has had a baby, and her husband Rob (Van Dyke) has become convinced the hospital screwed up and they’ve brought the wrong infant home.  Rob thinks he’s figured out who got their baby, calls up the other family to come over.  Doorbell rings, Rob opens the door and there’s actor Greg Morris.  I’m sorry, let me be more specific:  Black actor Greg Morris.  What they got, Persky remembers, is the longest laugh in the run of the series.

Here’s the thing:  CBS didn’t want to air it.  They were scared!  A joke about –in hushed whispers – race!  And the episode might not have aired if series creator/producer Carl Reiner hadn’t threatened CBS, saying he’d go to the press and tell them how the network had chickened out.

The episode ran, there were no riots, just laughs. 

Somehow, in that atmosphere, Sidney Poitier managed to flourish as an actor, turn out not just important stories on the issue of race and carry perhaps the unfair burden of representing an entire people, but grand entertainment as well, and, in the process became an honest-to-God, damn-the-whole-race-thing movie star.  Not bad for a barely literate teen immigrant from the Bahamas, so poor at one point he had to sleep in a bus station toilet, and who had been soundly, roundly, definitively rejected in his first audition for the American Negro theatre.

Poitier, it turns out, was in the right place at the right time.  However nervous TV was about topical issues, the motion picture industry was, post-WW II, in a position where it had to take risks on what had, in earlier decades, been hands-off content.  Part of it was the social awakening which had come in the wake of the greatest armed conflict in history.  The predations of the Axis powers had not only got the message through to American audiences that not every story was an uplifter, and not every ending would be a happy one, but that same awakening opened American eyes to the inequities in their own country.  For all the rhetoric during the war about the fight for democracy and liberty, there was a breed of storytellers dedicated to showing that here at home, we were falling short of those very goals.

Hollywood execs began greenlighting some of these provocative projects, although altruism was not always the major engine – or sometimes much of an engine at all.  The movie business was losing ticket-buyers in droves to this new-fangled thing called television.  The business responded with bigger screens, color, wacky gimmicks like 3-D, but also in pushing into content areas TV was often afraid to touch.  For TV this was, after all, an era in which the medium was dominated by I Love Lucy-type sitcoms, game shows, and other flyweight content – the kind of stuff spurring FCC chairman Newton Minnow, in 1961, to famously declare TV “…a vast wasteland.”

The movie biz found it could push back with meatier, more adult, more topical content.  There were movies deconstructing the whitewashed version of the American expansion westward and showed how badly Native Americans had been treated (Apache, 1954), the exploitation of illegal immigrant laborers (Border Incident, 1949), anti-Semitism (Crossfire, 1947), and, of course, the biggie:  the troubled (to say the least) relations between Black and white America.

Remember the times:  this was still the era of the Jim Crow south with laws that wouldn’t let Black Americans sit at the same lunch counters as white customers, that forced them to drink at separate water fountains, attend separate schools, sit at the back of buses, that made it a crime to marry across racial lines.  And there were still the midnight lynchings.

As for the supposedly liberal north, well, there may not have been anything like Jim Crow, but any back-patting about being more open-minded was undeserved.  Blacks lived under de facto segregation (my father used to tell the story of a Black friend who made the mistake of leaving his neighborhood to visit my dad in his Italian neighborhood and wound up getting the hell beat out of him), and the practice of “redlining” kept Blacks from buying homes in white neighborhoods.

This was the world into which young Poitier migrated, to make his way in what, under even the best of circumstances, has always been one of the most brutally competitive and unfair professions:  show business.

Talent doesn’t make a star, and neither does skill.  You can have both, you can have both by the bucketload, but if you don’t have that unteachable, unlearnable, ineffable thing which creates a spark in the three-way relationship between performer, camera, and audience – what we label, for lack of better words, “star quality” – it doesn’t matter.

As the movies began tackling race-related subject matter, a number of Black performers began to become familiar faces in roles that threw off the racist stereotypes which had prevailed in earlier decades; actors like James Edwards, Woody Strode who became part of John Ford’s stock company, Diana Sands, and others.  Like Edwards and Strode, they often became stalwart supporting actors, appealing on the screen…but not quite enough to become more.  Singer/actor Harry Belafonte had the quality of a leading man and showed it in movies like Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957), and The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), but still somehow fell short in whatever it took for the second stage rockets to kick a performer into high orbit.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Poitier, on the other hand, had it all:  talent, skill, looks, showed star quality almost from the first in No Way Out(1950).  The film, about a hospital’s first black doctor, torn between personal revulsion and professional obligation, treating a rabid bigot is a tough watch even today.  It’s hard to imagine how it went over at the time with its frank language, verbal venom so rough that Richard Widmark, playing the racist, felt compelled to apologize to Poitier after every take (the two would become lifelong friends and work together twice more, ironically always as antagonists; in the Cold War thriller The Bedford Incident [1965] which Widmark produced, and a delicious bit of cheesy Viking adventure, The Long Ships [1964]).

There was a tendency, at the time, in trying to make these stories both palatable to white audiences and non-threatening, to deliver Black characters that were practically saintly in their moral purity.  The beauty of Poitier’s Dr. Luther Brooks – and what’s so impressive in such a young actor’s work (Poitier was only 23 at the time) — is how well he captured the torment and frustration of someone faced with two unpalatable moral choices.  Like the movie itself, which offers no easy answers but rather shows an escalating cycle of violence and retribution, Poitier’s Brooks also finds the right thing may bring little more peace than the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

Throughout the 1950s, Poitier was able to solidify and elevate his status.  At a time when there were few attractive roles for performers of color, he had the spine to turn down roles he felt denigrated Blacks.  He early on became aware that, desired or not, he’d become a standard-bearer for the country’s Black community, and made his choices on that basis…as well as on a more personal criteria:  “I decided in my life that I would do nothing that did not reflect positively on my father’s life.”

The Defiant Ones
Image: United Artists

So, he was the one slum youth idealistic teacher Glenn Ford thought he could reach in Blackboard Jungle (1955), the dockworker who crosses the color line to befriend Army deserter John Cassavetes in the touching Edge of the City (1957), and scored his first Oscar nomination for The Defiant Ones(1958).

Poitier is Cullen, shackled to sneering bigot Joker (Tony Curtis) on a southern chain gang.  A truck accident frees them from the gang, but not from each other.  Circumstance forces them each to wrestle with their respective prejudices, to realize that, like it or not, they only have each other to rely on for escape.  By today’s standards, the movie’s ending might be a little pat, but the fiery performances of both actors make it a gripping duet.

Poitier was now becoming a familiar name on movie marquees, and his cachet as box office bait and as an artist seemed to grow with each outing:  the soldier trying to gain the respect of his comrades in the Korean War actioner, All the Young Men (1960), a stunning screen recreation of his Broadway performance in A Raisin in the Sun (1961), a prison psychiatrist treating sociopathic American Nazi Bobby Darin in Pressure Point (1962), and then winning the Oscar for one of his best-remembered performances in Lilies of the Field (1963).

Lilies of the Field  - Sidney Poitier
Image: United Artists

Poitier is Homer Smith, an itinerant laborer ambling across the southwest who stops at a small, isolated convent for water.  The iron-spined mother superior (Lilia Skala) in charge of this small squad of nuns who’ve escaped from East Germany, talks Smith into doing some small repairs, one thing leads to another, and Smith ultimately finds himself cajoled, emotionally blackmailed, and soft-heartedly caving in to building a chapel for the nuns.  Poitier’s is a lovely performance in a gentle, lovely film, veering between bluster and hurt feelings, frustration and sentimental surrender.  One of the funniest scenes:  Smith and Skala trading Bible quotes as she tries to justify not coughing up promised pay for Smith’s labors.

If there was any doubt that Poitier’s Oscar win made him a star to all audiences, he cemented his status with a triple crown of box office winners all in 1967:  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (which despite its box office success at the time, hasn’t held up too well), To Sir, With Love, and perhaps his most iconic performance in In the Heat of the Night. The three hits in one year made Sidney Poitier the biggest box office draw in the movies that year.

To Sir With Love movie - Sidney Poitier
Image: Columbia Pictures

Sir makes a nice thematic bookend to Poitier’s role in Blackboard Jungle as this time around, he’s got the Glenn Ford role as a teacher swimming against a tide of resistance with his classroom of English slum kids.

Poitier is Mark Thackery who’s intent is only to mark time teaching until he hears about an engineering job.  But, in time, as he finds a way to connect with the kids – and they connect with him – he comes to find an emotional investment at the head of the classroom no engineering job can match.  By now, it’s something of a familiar story – lone, well-meaning teacher vs. cynical, resistant kids, bit by bit the barriers come down and they touchingly Bond.  Still, Poitier and company still manage to touch the heart and inspire the spirit.

Among a collection of impressive work, In the Heat of the Night is still the definitive Poitier movie, and seemed to catch the essence of the man as well:  sharp, articulate, carrying his role as representative with ease and dignity, all of it held together with a steely, gutsy, unflashy resolve.  Poitier is Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs on his way home from visiting southern family.  While waiting between trains in a small Mississippi town, he’s mistakenly arrested as a suspect in the murder of a northern businessman come south to build a factory.  He finds himself unwillingly drafted into helping local police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) investigate the murder.

In the Heat of the Night - Sidney Poitier
Image: United Artists

It was a tough shoot, director Norman Jewison forced to shoot in Illinois as filming on location in the south was deemed too dangerous for the production in general, and Poitier in particular. 

It’s the perfect 1960s blend of a taut, entertaining thriller combined with a rich component of social substance.  If there’s a moment in the entire Poitier canon that defines a running theme through all his work, it comes in his response to Gillespie’s teasing him about his name Virgil.  When he’s asked what he’s called back home, Poitier, his eyes flashing, declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

If that’s the moment most cited from the film, one that gives a greater dramatic jolt comes when Tibbs is questioning wealthy local Old-School plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates).  When the light goes off for Endicott that Tibbs’ questions indicate he thinks Endicott is a suspect in the murder, Endicott slaps Tibbs…and Tibbs immediately slaps him back.

The instance is not in the John Ball source novel, and Poitier is quoted as saying, when he was approached for the movie, “I’ll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee that when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie.”

The film won the Best Picture Oscar, Steiger copped a deserved Oscar for his work, but Poitier wasn’t even nominated.  The guess is that with three critically-acclaimed box office winners all released within the same year, he split his own vote!

At the 2002 Academy Awards, Poitier saluted writers and directors saying “…those filmmakers persevered, speaking through the art to the best in all of us.”  Well, Mr. Poitier did the same through his art; finding the best in all of us while also showing that the best – as well as the worst – knew no ethnicity, no color, that for good and for ill, people are people.  Anybody who thinks different has a slap coming.

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