In honor of Sidney Poitier's 86th birthday, an appreciation of the man's life and historic career.
“It has been a long journey to this moment,” Sidney Poitier said on the night of April 14, 1964 when clasping the Oscar he had just won as best actor for Lilies of the Field,1 the first time that an African-American had been honored for a starring role. Thirty-eight years later, he returned to the podium to accept an honorary Oscar in recognition “of his Remarkable Accomplishments as an Artist and as a Human Being.” The color line would be crossed more dramatically than ever that year when Denzel Washington became the first African-American since Poitier to be named best actor, and Halle Barry made history as the first black female to win in the leading actress category. In his speech, Poitier explained how he “arrived in Hollywood at the age of twenty-two in a time different than today’s, a time in which the odds against my standing here tonight fifty-three years later would not have fallen in my favor. Back then, no route had been established for where I was hoping to go, no pathway left in evidence for me to trace, no custom for me to follow.”
It was Poitier who established the route that Washington and Barry followed to success, and yet it was never his ambition to be an actor. As he told CNN’s Larry King in 2008, “I became an actor to prove a point.”2
It was on February 20, 1927 while his Bahamian parents were visiting Miami, Florida that Sidney Poitier was born. Less than three pounds at birth, he was not expected to survive and his father had a coffin prepared for his burial. A soothsayer told his mother that he would not only survive, but one day "walk with kings.”3 He lived and grew up with six siblings on Cat Island where his family owned a tomato farm.
“It was magical,” he told NPR in 2009. “There was no transportation unless you had a donkey or a horse. No automobiles, no electric lights, no running water.” There weren’t any mirrors either, and the first time he saw the face that was destined for fame was in the reflection on the water.
“The water was never quite still, so that I would look and what I would see is a distorted face. Every time I moved, it would move, and that’s how I got to be introduced to my shadow. And my shadow and I became very good friends. We would race down the beach against each other, and the winner was always determined by the position of the sun. I remember dancing. I did all kinds of things with my shadow.”4 Laughing at the memory, he said, “I’m glad psychiatry wasn’t around then. They probably would have put me away.”5
Still, it wasn’t the Garden of Eden. “My mother dressed me in flour sacks because she couldn’t afford clothing,” he told writer Aljean Harmetz. His father “had no power, no influence except with his children. I saw the humiliation of a well-intended, hard-working honest man categorized as a surplus entity.” 6
When he was 10, the family moved to Nassau and it was there that his imagination was touched by the magic of movies. With some companions, he attended a Western and had “the biggest shock I would ever have.” He was “absolutely fascinated,” and went back to the theater after his friends had gone home to wait at the exit where, he believed, all the people and animals he had seen on screen would come out.7
Opportunities for work were scarce in Nassau, and after a friend had been sent to reform school for stealing a bicycle, Poitier’s father was concerned that a similar fate might befall his son. At the age of 15, he was sent to Florida where his older brother, Cyril, had settled down with a wife and children.
It was in the Sunshine State that Poitier first experienced racism. On Cat Island, he recalled to Oprah Winfrey, “There were two whites on our island. One was a doctor, another a shopkeeper’s daughter. And it never dawned on me that they were anything but people. . . White didn’t mean power, so I wasn’t prepared for anything out there that would not be friendly.”8
As he told NPR, “I think, essentially, that Florida said to me, ‘You are not who you think you are. We will determine what you are.’ And I decided, no, I will determine who I am. And I wound up in New York.”9 In his memoir, The Measure of a Man, he remembers that New York City’s “mercilessness went about testing me without regard of any kind.”10 With neither an education nor a command of the English language, his opportunities were limited, but his skin color was an even greater barrier. “Society had created laws to keep me at a distance, or out of sight altogether.”11 He believes he survived in the Big Apple “because my mother taught me to be respectful of people. It kept me alive. ‘Please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘excuse me for interrupting’ - it’s amazing how far those words carried me.” 12
New York was as surprising in its way as Florida. Having come from the tropics, he was unprepared for the brutality of a New York winter. To escape the snow and bone-chilling cold, he joined the Army where he was assured of three meals a day and a warm bed to sleep in, but “I had no more tolerance for military discipline than I did for southern Jim Crow.”13 After throwing a chair at a senior officer, he found himself in the psychiatric ward of a Long Island hospital. After it was determined that he did not have a murderous intent, he was discharged, and back on the streets of New York, looking for work.
One day while scanning the newspaper want ads and finding no work for dishwashers, he came across an ad requesting actors for the American Negro Theater. “‘What the hell,’ I thought, ‘I’ve tried dishwashers wanted, porters wanted, janitors wanted - why not try actors wanted?’” 14
After Poitier appeared at the theater, the man in charge, hearing his thick Caribbean accent and the difficulty with which he pronounced words with more than two syllables, grabbed the script from his hands and showed him the door. “And just as he threw me out, he ended with ‘Get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something.’”
It was the moment that would change Sidney Poitier’s life. He hadn’t told the man that he was a dishwasher. “If he didn’t know, what was it about me that implied to this stranger that dishwashing would accurately sum up my whole life’s worth?”15
Poitier returned to dishwashing, but he was no longer content to stay there. Determined to improve his English, he read the newspaper during breaks, “trying to sound out each syllable of each unfamiliar word.” A Jewish waiter he worked with became his tutor and “we sat in the same booth in that quiet area of the restaurant and he helped me learn to read.”16 He was going to prove that he could be an actor, not out of any great desire to be on stage, but to “prove to the man at the American Negro Theatre that Sidney Poitier had a hell of a lot more in him than washing dishes.”17
When he returned to the theater, this time they let him in, but only because there was a shortage of males in the acting class. Once in, however, he found himself failing, and remained only after agreeing to be the janitor in between his studies. Even then, he showed little promise and would have been expelled if not for several students who intervened on his behalf. “They thought I was a little crazy guy,” he said during an interview with the Academy of Achievement, “but they got to like me.” They succeeded in convincing the school to keep him on as an understudy for a somewhat more experienced novice named Harry Belafonte.
“Now, she had no intentions of me ever playing that part,” he said of the school’s director. As fate would have it, Belafonte was unavailable on opening night when a casting director was present to scout talent for a Broadway production of Lysistrata. Poitier “had to go on for him, and son of a gun, the casting director liked what I did and called me.”18
Now appearing on Broadway, Poitier was so nervous that he botched his lines, gave the wrong cues, and had the audience laughing. “I was so god-awful they thought I was good,” he recalled in his memoir. “They said they admired my ‘fresh, comedic gift.’”19 This led to his casting in a traveling company of Anna Lucasta, and finally, after a long, lean period of unemployment, to an audition for a role in a film that Joseph L. Mankiewicz was writing and directing at 20th Century Fox: No Way Out.
The 1950 film was a hard-hitting story of a white bigot, played by Richard Widmark, out to avenge his brother’s death which he blames on the black intern, Poitier, who treated him in a hospital emergency room. “In the script I had to say these terrible things to Sidney,” Widmark recalled in 2002, “and after each take I’d run up to him and apologize.”20 Unflinching in its depiction of racial prejudice, the film won Poitier excellent notices, with Bosley Crowther in The New York Times applauding his “fine, sensitive performance.”21 Poitier credited director Mankiewicz as one of the men who “had to say something about their time and the question of race in this country,”22 and gave him the kind of opportunities that had been denied Negro actors in the past, who had been shunted aside in comedic, often demeaning supporting roles.
Suddenly, more film offers were coming his way, and Poitier traveled to South Africa where he was assigned the role of a black priest in Cry, the Beloved Country. It was, as he recalled in his autobiography, “heady stuff, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that, not only was I one lucky youngster, but something more had to be at play here. I had grown up in a culture where unseen forces lurked just out of view, where people looked to ‘the mysteries’ to explain both good fortune and bad.”23
Despite these breaks, Poitier had to alternate acting assignments with other jobs, and for a time he ran a restaurant in Harlem. “I closed that restaurant four or five minutes before the sheriff came to do the same job,” he told The New York Times. “I just have no gift for the restaurant business.”24 Struggling though he was, and now with a wife and daughter to support, and a second child on the way, his principles made him turn down roles he felt were demeaning to his sense of himself as a man. He declined one role because the character “didn’t fight for what mattered to him most. He didn’t behave with dignity.”25 Years later, he would tell Larry King that “I had set myself a standard. I knew what it was to be uncomfortable in a movie theater watching on the screen images of myself - not me, but black people - that were uncomfortable.”26 Such integrity negatively impacted his bank account, but also impressed Marty Baum, a powerful agent, who told his new client, “anybody as crazy as you, I want to handle him.”27
With Baum’s help, Poitier secured more roles in such films as Red Ball Express, and Go, Man, Go, a showcase for the basketball antics of the Harlem Globetrotters. Finally, in 1955, there was Blackboard Jungle. Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, the film was historic for its use of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” as a theme song, which introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the mainstream a full year before Elvis Presley hammered it into the forefront of popular culture. It was also one of the first films to shine a light on a generation of youth whose rebellion spread from the streets into the classrooms. The film, directed by Richard Brooks, received more ink in newspaper editorial pages than in the entertainment section, generating controversy and ticket sales. Was the film’s depiction of juvenile delinquency accurate, or was it an incitement to the kind of behavior portrayed?
“It seizes a burning issue,” reported Time, “and lets the sparks fall where they may.”28
Revolution was in the air that year. On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white passenger. After her arrest, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the pastor of a local Baptist church, led a boycott of the city owned transit system which would result in the desegregation of the city-owned bus lines. The civil rights movement was born, and Sidney Poitier, age 28, would soon become one of its most famous symbols.
Edge of the City was as gritty as its title would suggest with Poitier and John Cassavettes as interracial friends. Racial conflict was also at the heart of Something of Value, another film for Richard Brooks in which he provided support for ‘50's heartthrob Rock Hudson. The film didn’t fare too well with critics, but Poitier stood out for what The New York Times recognized as a “stirring, strong performance as the black friend.”29
The “black friend” was not quite the role he had in 1958's The Defiant Ones. As a black convict shackled to the wrist of white Tony Curtis, both of them on the run from a posse, Poitier saw his name above the title for the first time. The work of Stanley Kramer, a producer-director who specialized in films examining important social issues, the black-and-white drama was harsh, powerful, and even divisive. Depending on each other for their survival, the two men eventually establish a brotherly bond. The climactic scene, in which Poitier extends his hand to Curtis to help him aboard a train that represents their final shot at freedom, then decides to jump off to join him when he fails, raised the hackles of some black audiences. They felt that Poitier’s character should have said “Screw that guy,” and rode to freedom alone.30 But most viewers agreed with Poitier that the film showed that most of our differences are cosmetic and that “there’s more that joins us together than separates us.”31
Critics were impressed. “Mr. Poitier shows a deep and powerful strain of underlying compassion,” reported The New York Times.32 Like Curtis, Poitier would earn an Oscar nomination as best actor, but it was David Niven who took home the prize for Separate Tables.
Sidney Poitier was now a star, the only person of color in the movies for whom studios were actively seeking projects. Still, success meant compromise. Harry Belafonte had turned down the film version of Porgy and Bess because he felt George and Ira Gershwin’s folk opera reinforced racial stereotypes. Poitier had similar misgivings, but once producer Samuel Goldwyn publicly requested he take the role of Porgy opposite Dorothy Dandridge’s Bess, the pressure was on. Poitier knew his career could suffer, and even end prematurely, if he defied such a powerful force in Hollywood. In the judgment of The New York Times, he played Porgy “as sensitive and strong as one could wish.”33
In All the Young Men, he was a young Marine whose minority status makes him an outsider who has to prove himself to his comrades (which he does, heroically), but it’s the only thing that distinguished the otherwise cliche-ridden drama.
Poitier took a break from movies to return to the stage. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play that is now taught in schools, opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959. A rich drama exploring the hopes and dreams of a black tenement family, it would win the Dramatic Critics Circle Award for the best American play and prove a worthy showcase for Poitier’s talents. “Mr. Poitier is a remarkable actor with enormous power that is always under control,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times. “He is as eloquent when he has nothing to say as when he has a pungent line to speak.”34 The film version that appeared a year later was equally well-received.
For Paris Blues, he joined Paul Newman as a pair of jazz musicians whose devotion to music is a hurdle for the romantic intentions of Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward. A flimsy trifle at best, it did benefit from a Duke Ellington score and an appearance by jazz great Louis Armstrong.
Much better was 1962's ,Pressure Point, produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Hubert Cornfield. “Filmed in black . . . in white . . . in rage!” the poster’s tagline screamed and there were plenty of fireworks as Poitier’s patient prison psychiatrist probed the troubled mind of a racist Nazi sympathizer played by singer Bobby Darin.
Then came Lilies of the Field. “Sidney Poitier can’t carry a picture by himself,” was the verdict of United Artists executives when writer/director Ralph Nelson announced he wanted to cast the actor as Homer Smith, an ex-GI handyman who builds a chapel for a group of nuns who settle in Arizona after fleeing their oppressive homeland. The UA brass suggested Nelson change the title to something more provocative, cast rugged Steve McQueen as Homer, and change the story so that the lead character isn’t merely helping some nuns build a church, but one of the nuns is “a novice who never takes her final vows, see?”35
Nelson, whom Poitier later praised as “a real humanitarian,” resisted these efforts to commercialize the story, and the result was the warm-hearted little movie that proved very successful at the box-office and would lead to Poitier’s historic Oscar win as best actor of 1963. “I guess I leaped six feet from my seat when my name was called,” he said the night after his triumph.36
While Poitier was becoming Hollywood’s first black golden boy, he was keenly aware that the world was exploding around him. In addition to lobbying for the Civil Rights Act that was passed in July 1963, he was among the celebrities in attendance at Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington a month later. He also joined his friend and sometime rival Harry Belafonte on a visit to Greenville, Mississippi where they met with Stokely Carmichael and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But the voice of a more militant breed of civil rights activist was beginning to compete with King’s message of non-violent resistance. For some of them, Poitier was an “Uncle Tom” and a “million-dollar shoeshine boy” who had been “desexualized” in films made by white men. As he reflected more than a quarter century later, “I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had no control over content, no creative leverage except to refuse to do a film, which I often did. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden.”37
With success came other problems, including marital ones. The marriage that produced four daughters would end in 1965.
Two months after winning the Oscar, Poitier was back on screen in 1964's The Long Ships,, a genial adventure film shot along the coast of Yugoslavia under the direction of ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Poitier was the villain, a powerful Moorish prince who enlists Richard Widmark’s Viking in the search for a magical gold bell. He joined Widmark again in 1965's The Bedford Incident, but this time Poitier had a comparatively insignificant role as a reporter aboard a submarine under Widmark’s maniacal command.
As Simon of Cyrene, who helps Christ carry His cross to Calvary, Poitier was one of many big names (John Wayne and Charlton Heston were some of the others) enlisted to help the box-office potential of George Stevens’ 1965 biblical extravaganza, The Greatest Story Ever Told. Instead, the all-star cast only ensured that the visually stunning but emotionally muted epic would be remembered two decades later when the Medved boys, Michael and Harry, handed out The Golden Turkey Awards to Hollywood’s biggest disasters.
“I’m not always satisfied with my work in every scene in every picture,” he said. “But in A Patch of Blue I was coming from a different place, and the performance, by any measurement, was absolutely on target; and I felt that all the way through.” He credits his fellow actors for inspiring him to reach “for something that I hadn’t even been aware was in me.”38 In the M-G-M drama, Poitier befriends a blind woman who is unaware that he is black. Time magazine’s critic thought Poitier and co-star Elizabeth Hartman “conquer the insipidity of the plot that reduces tangled human problems to a case of the black leading the blind.”39
Poitier began 1966 by starring in The Slender Thread as a volunteer at a suicide prevention center who tries to keep Anne Bancroft on the telephone line after she has taken an overdose of barbiturates. That was followed by Ralph Nelson’s Western, Duel at Diablo, in which he was a dandified ex-calvary sergeant opposite James Garner.
Neither film was particularly successful, but his fortunes would change in 1967 when he had three films in release, all box-office hits that would in their own way become iconic. To Sir, with Love is a “colorful, kicky movie in the mod mood!” squealed the critic at Good Housekeeping magazine. As its Lulu sung theme song soared to the top of the charts, the film, released in July, would pack theaters in a summer otherwise dominated by James Bond and the gritty heroics of The Dirty Dozen. And it would continue to pack them in well into the fall, becoming a runaway hit that surprised even Columbia Pictures. The studio provided a budget that Poitier considered “offensively meager,”40 and compensated for his low salary by offering him a percentage of the profits that they didn’t see coming. As an out of work engineer who takes a job teaching a class of unruly students in the slums of London, Poitier might have remembered how, 12 years earlier, he was on the other side of the desk, as one of the students who gave Glenn Ford a hard time in Blackboard Jungle. He had come a long way, and, though Time found the film’s blend of realism and idealism “an unstable mixture,” they thought Poitier “invests his role with a subtle warmth.”41 Tony Mastroianni in The Cleveland Press considered it “a performance which realizes all that is best in the script and makes the rest better than it is.” 42
The success of To Sir, With Love was good news to United Artists which had In the Heat of the Night ready for release that August. Its story could be summarized in a few words. An industrialist with plans to build a factory in an economically depressed, racially divided town is bludgeoned to death by a man in need of money to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion. John Ball’s novel may have won an Edgar for best mystery,43 but no one really cared about identifying the culprit. Audiences were riveted by the dramatic, and sometimes hilarious, interplay between Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a black Philadelphia detective picked up as a suspect while visiting Mississippi, and the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) with whom he sets about to solve the crime. Under Norman Jewison’s careful direction, and with Haskell Wexler’s superb cinematography, In the Heat of the Night worked on many levels. Time hailed it as a “subtle and meticulously observed study. . . immeasurably helped by performances by Steiger and Poitier that break brilliantly with black-white stereotypes.”44 Life magazine called it “possibly the best (film) we have had from the U.S. this year.”45
It was Virgil Tibbs more than any other role that probably led the American Film Institute to describe Poitier’s signature characters as “men of control, men who subdue volcanic rage with reason and intellect. They're willing to be reasonable up to a point, but when that anger simmers close to the surface, look out.”46
In the Heat of the Night’s message of racial tolerance was subtly, and, therefore, believably, handled, and the film gave Poitier what is, perhaps, his most famous screen moment. “Virgil,” Steiger sneers. “That’s a pretty funny name for a colored boy from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?”
“They call me MISTER Tibbs!” Poitier retorts in a scene that still makes audiences cheer.
At Christmas, a third Poitier film reached theater screens. Guess Whose Coming to Dinner reunited him with director Stanley Kramer who called Poitier “the only actor I’ve ever worked with who has the range of Marlon Brando - from pathos to great power.”47 His co-stars, Hollywood legends Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, played the parents of the white girl to whom Poitier, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, proposes marriage. The fathers of both parties oppose the interracial union while everyone from the mother to the local monsignor cheerfully offer their support. Audiences flocked to the film and made it a massive hit, while Oscar voters honored it with an astounding 10 nominations. But in such politically divisive times, the film’s deliberately provocative subject matter was a guarantee that it would become, in Poitier’s words, “a football with the critics.”48 In visiting college campuses to discuss the film with students, director Kramer learned that the film didn’t go far enough for them. “They didn’t want more love scenes between Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton - they wanted them in bed, period.”49 One of the film’s critics was Joanna Shimkus, Poitier’s co-star in 1969's The Lost Man. “That was a terrible film,” she said. “To think the guy had to be a Nobel Prize winner - a genius - to get that stupid little white girl to like him.”50 This disagreement didn’t deter their relationship. They became romantically involved and married in 1976, a union that produced two daughters.
As the only black superstar in films, Poitier was in the impossible position of having to please everyone. If he dared to play a villain, as he did in The Long Ships, he was presenting the Negro in a bad light. If he was the good guy, well, does he have to be that good? “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” was the title of an essay that appeared in the September 10, 1967 edition of The New York Times. The article expressed the thesis that the characters he played were “unreal,” and that he was always “a good nigger” helping whitey solve whitey’s problems.51
Although she meant to compliment him, Katherine Hepburn’s observation that she didn’t think of Poitier as a Negro - “He’s not black, he’s not white, he’s nothing at all as far as color is concerned” - provided more ammunition for his critics. As a white writer for the Los Angeles Times condescendingly sneered, Poitier was a “Negro in white face.”52 When Poitier responded to his critics publicly, he was tactful. “When a person comes out of the theater after seeing one of my films, he might have been given a one-dimensional picture, but my films do exemplify some of the possibilities of man.”53 Privately, he was furious. “How long do you think I’d last if I came on like Stokely Carmichael or Eldridge Cleaver?” he asked friends.54 By then, Carmichael and Cleaver, both of whom had ties to the militant Black Panther Party, were winning the ears of many young blacks who were impatient for change.
Bill Cosby, whose role on I Spy broke TV’s color line the way that Poitier had in the movies, came to his defense, noting that “when you belong to the minority group, you have to walk so you don’t upset the people who are in a position to give you the next step so you can eventually walk by yourself.”55
Poitier was not a nominee at that year’s Oscars, which were postponed by two days out of respect for the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr, whose own journey ended with an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. But Poitier’s presence was felt in the Academy’s choices. In the Heat of the Night won best picture, his co-star, Rod Steiger, was named best actor, and Katherine Hepburn, of Guess Whose Coming to Dinner, was chosen best actress. If 1967 represented an artistic triumph for the star, it was also a commercial peak. At year’s end, theater owners polled by the Independent Film Journal named him the year’s top box-office draw,56 while a survey by the Gallup Organization concluded that he was among a handful of stars, including Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen, whose name alone could sell tickets.57
The romantic comedy, For Love of Ivy, released in July 1968, was based on a story idea he passed on to screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur who had penned Edge of the City a decade earlier. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby stated that the film “will soothe the guilt-ridden fears of the white middle class, whose values it confirms,” while confirming “the worst suspicions of the black militants, whose values it ignores.”58 It was another case of being damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. Poitier played a successful black businessman whom a white family sets up to date their maid who is threatening to leave their employ to attend secretarial school. It was a comedy not unlike one that might have starred Doris Day, but here the principles were black. A different standard was applied in those racially charged times, and in his review of the film, Roger Ebert suggested such carping “may even be a sort of triple-reverse racism.” He concluded that For Love of Ivy was “a warm and delightful comedy.”59
In 1968, he continued his collaboration with Aurthur and also returned to Broadway, but this time as the director of Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights. “I have been extremely successful as an actor,” Poitier told the press. “I have no idea if my gifts stop there. This will at least answer that question, wouldn’t it?”60 The play was not a success, but Poitier gave Aurthur another vote of confidence by handing him the directorial reins for The Lost Man, which Universal released in the summer of 1969.
This time, Poitier was on the wrong side of the law as the mastermind behind a robbery that uses a civil rights demonstration as a cover. In the process, he kills a cop and spends the rest of the film on the lam, assisted by a white social worker (Shimkus). Again, few critics reviewed the film on its purely artistic merit or entertainment value. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby expressed the belief that because Poitier was black and a movie star, “his movies require social interpretations that have nothing to do with cinema, which is ironic since Poitier has never made a movie that revealed anything as important about America than his success in it.”61
Other than its star, producer Walter Mirisch, and a music score by Quincy Jones, 1970's They Call Me MISTER Tibbs had little in common with the Oscar winning In the Heat of the Night except that Poitier was once again playing Virgil Tibbs. When we first met Tibbs three years earlier, he was unmarried and the number one homicide expert with the Philadelphia Police Department. Now he has a wife, two pre-teen children, and is pounding the beat in San Francisco. Such inconsistencies might not have mattered if the sequel shared the earlier film’s moody atmosphere and vivid characterizations. Like a third Tibbs film, 1971's The Organization, it was a routine crime drama, just another movie to fill screens in need of product.
In the early ‘70s, what became known as the “black exploitation” film was gaining a foothold in the cinema. Poitier’s success helped open the door, but the kind of films that resulted, most low-budget and with limited distribution, were controversial. Author James Baldwin angrily dismissed them as “a desperate effort to fit black faces into a national fantasy, and that won’t work. How can you fit black faces into fantasies largely based on their exclusion?”62
In some ways, they were also anti-Poitier. In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song, dedicated to “all of the black brothers and sisters who have had enough of The Man,” and, to a lesser but more conspicuous degree, Gordon Parks’ private detective action pic, Shaft, featured characters who spoke in urban slang, were both sexual and violent, and openly cynical about notions of brotherhood. To many of the talents behind such films, Poitier wasn’t “black enough,” a phrase heard in the song that played over the opening credits of 1970's Cotton Comes to Harlem, the film that proved to Hollywood that there was a lucrative market for movies with black casts and themes. Looking back in 2010, Pam Grier, the undisputed queen of the genre through her title roles in Coffy and Foxy Brown, felt such films were “important for documenting what black people were doing,” but acknowledged that, “At the time, some people were horrified.”63
Poitier may not have been horrified, but what he saw did not impress him. The message seemed to be that "to be accepted you have to be appropriately hostile and obviously militant and sufficiently anti-white."64
That year, he moved, with Shimkus, to the Bahamas. He said he preferred the simpler life that the country had to offer, but admitted there were other reasons for the move. “I didn’t particularly relish criticism for my work then as ‘too white.’ In fact, I hated it. I got a lot of bad vibes from my actor friends, too.”65
Some felt he was becoming irrelevant as black stars like Fred Williamson and Jim Brown moved into the spotlight, often playing roles to which their anger was well-suited. The more dignified image that Poitier projected was beginning to look passe. But Williamson and Brown were former athletes, and their talents were still better suited to the football field than motion pictures. Their films never crossed over to the mainstream audience the way that Poitier’s films did, and never rose above B level. Poitier remained the only black superstar in films, although he was now contemplating a move to the other side of the camera.
1972's Buck and the Preacher marked his debut as a director. Poitier was Buck, a former Union calvary man who guides a group of newly freed slaves as they flee the bounty hunters on their trail. Harry Belafonte played the Preacher, his partner, a con man who invests the film with some humor. “At last, a black Western, and a good one at that,” cheered the critic for Call and Post, an African-American newspaper.66
His second directorial effort, 1973's A Warm December, was his contribution to a genre that became very popular after 1970's Love Story, the romantic drama in which one of the lovers is fated to die. In a contemporary twist, the doomed girl whom Poitier woos is suffering from sickle cell anemia, the blood disease whose victims are exclusively black. Poitier’s character survived in the film, but Poitier, the star and director, did not survive the critics. In The New York Times, Roger Greenspun thought that watching the movie was like “opening some impossibly typical, transcendentally awful issue of Reader’s Digest.”67
A Warm December was his initial film for First Artists, a company he founded with fellow superstars Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman in 1969. They were soon joined by Steve McQueen, and later by Dustin Hoffman. The superstar quintet were following in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks who started United Artists back in 1919 to wrest control of their art away from the more business-minded moguls who ran Hollywood. Like that earlier star-driven enterprise, First Artists ultimately failed. Its superstar founders tended to accept bigger offers elsewhere and used the company to fund quirky, less commercial projects (like McQueen’s adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People) that left it awash in red ink. While UA later thrived under new management and distributed some of Poitier’s most important films, First Artists disbanded completely by the dawn of the next decade.
Poitier’s films for First Artists included a trio of comedies that helped him win back many of his minority fans. Black audiences were primarily responsible for making 1974's Uptown Saturday Night a big hit. “(Poitier) himself can’t make anybody laugh,” Vincent Canby observed in The New York Times, “but he knows people who can.”68 With a cast that included such superstar comedians as Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Flip Wilson, as well as Harry Belafonte, the Poitier-directed film was, Canby reports, “an exuberant black joke that utilizes many of the stereotypical attitudes that only black writers, directors and actors can decently get away with.”
He was teamed with Cosby again in 1975's Let’s Do It Again and 1977's A Piece of the Action. In The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gilder described the latter as “a candy-coated training film, four-square in favor of industry, honesty, courtesy, matrimony and culture; dead-set against wasted lives, ignorance, defeatism, sloth, senseless impudence, drugs and organized crime.”69 That’s a lot to pack into a comedy, but Poitier did it.
It was a new era in cinema with blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars pushing smaller scale human dramas to the sidelines. Disappointed with the roles he was being offered, and weary of “anybody who thinks I’m the carrier of his dreams,”70 Poitier stayed behind the camera for most of the next decade. In 1980, he directed Stir Crazy, a box-office smash with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. His first autobiography, This Life, was a bestseller the same year. When Wilder asked him to direct 1982's less successful Hanky Panky with Gilda Radner, Poitier cast his old friend Richard Widmark as a villain.
He returned to acting in a pair of thrillers released almost back-to-back in the early months of 1988. In both Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita, he played FBI agents. Of the former, Roger Ebert wrote that Poitier “is probably not going to win any awards for his performance, but it’s nice to have him back.”71 Of the latter, he observed that Poitier stars with teen actor River Phoenix “for no reason more compelling than their combined marquee appeal.” 72
By then, he was no longer quite so alone. There were other African-Americans becoming prominent in movies and television. In 1982's 48 Hours, Eddie Murphy broke out of the cast of TV’s Saturday Night Live to become a bonafide movie superstar. Louis Gossett, Jr. had won the Oscar as supporting actor (for An Officer and a Gentleman), a feat that Denzel Washington would duplicate for his role in 1989's Glory. Morgan Freeman was on the rise, too, about to become the go-to guy for parts requiring, in his word, “gravitas.” In 1992 , Poitier received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award where Hollywood’s elite, past and present, sang his praises. “Some day people will realize that I’m doing my part,” he told friends in the late ‘60s,73 and now that day had come. Addressing Poitier, Denzel Washington said, “I love you. I respect you. I imitate you.”74 Sidney Poitier had transcended much in his lifetime, and now he had transcended superstardom to become an icon, a legend.
He was also loyal, always remembering and honoring friends who helped him on his journey. In 1990, Poitier went to New York to present Richard Widmark, the first Hollywood star to welcome him into his home, with a career achievement award from the National Board of Review. “Sid, I can’t believe you came all the way from California to do this for me,” Widmark was overheard to say. “For you,” Poitier said, “I would have walked.”75
His loyalty also influenced his decision to retire from acting. For awhile, he continued to accept acting assignments. As Thurgood Marshall in Separate But Equal, he earned an Emmy nomination. In 1992, he joined Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, and Ben Kingsley for Sneakers, an entertaining caper comedy, and in 1997 he played an FBI agent on the trail of The Jackal. There was also a made for TV sequel, To Sir, With Love II, and another Emmy nomination for Mandela and De Klerk. Then, after several more television roles, he quietly stepped away from the cameras. As he explained to Larry King, “I’ve made a great number of movies. The body of work of which I was a part was the outgrowth of a goodly number of film makers who are no longer here. And they I owe a great deal to. And one of the things I owe them is to never work beneath my level or theirs.”76
He turned his hand to writing. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, appeared in 2000, and was followed in 2008 by Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter. In one letter, he described himself as “a loner, an outsider, a private person and one driven to walk on the edges of life.”77
He walked those edges without a net to catch him if he fell, and the pressure he faced might have made a lesser man jump. But he kept on walking. When accepting his life achievement honor from the American Film Institute, he advised those following in his path to “be true to yourself and be useful to the journey.” It was a perfect description of how Sidney Poitier has always lived his life, and could serve as his epitaph.
Brian W. Fairbanks
August 22, 2011
Originally published at Hyena Productions
© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks
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