a personal perspective on an iconic legend
Sidney Poitier was the most iconic Black actor for almost three-quarters of a century. We could always look to this larger-than-life figure and imagine what life could be like for African Americans both on and off-screen. As a boy growing up in the 60s, it was always refreshing to see Sidney on the big screen, no matter what role he portrayed. We knew his characters would handle the situation with grace and dignity, regardless of whether he dealt with racism, corrupt police, unruly teenagers, or Norse Vikings.
Even during his most productive years, there was already talk that he did not represent the Black experience in America. With the wisdom that hindsight sometimes provides, it is easy to see why people think this way. Sidney’s onscreen persona was non-threatening. He always spoke proper, whether he was portraying working-class people or Moorish kings.
I felt Sidney manufactured his image. He spoke funny. By this, I mean his accent. He did not talk like anyone I had ever known, black or white. It may have been that his early life in the Bahamas has never left entirely. He arrived in New York with an accent thick as mud. That accent, combined with the accent and rhythms of Harlem, left him with a unique speech pattern and delivery that I cannot compare to anyone else, even the people I have known who have also traveled the same geographic path that had has. His word delivery and speech were unoffensive and were designed to be consumed by the masses.
His movies can be easily dismissed these days by people that did not exist in the years he was riding high in Hollywood. Even though he never played what I consider Uncle Tom characters, his sometimes humble demeanor, especially in his early roles, was sometimes in the realm of put-upon characters who were occasionally submissive to the white characters around him. This had changed somewhat when he was the biggest star in Hollywood in the late sixties. When I look back at 1967, it can be argued that no movie star has ever had a year like that, either before or after.
That year, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was the second highest-grossing film, just behind The Graduate. To Sir, With Love was the sixth highest-grossing film of that same year. In the Heat of the Night, a third film that year, was nominated for several awards, including 8 Academy Award nominations, winning six of those awards, including best picture. That year, Poitier was one of the biggest box office attractions, ahead of iconic stars like John Wayne and Steve McQueen.
None of us knew it at the time, but that year would be the pinnacle of Poitiers career. He remained a star until the rest of his career. He continued to make notable entries to his canon, such a They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and great directorial efforts; Buck the Preacher, Uptown Saturday Night, and Stir Crazy. He would never reach the heights of that one year. But he did not have to. If he never made another movie after 1967, he would still have been remembered and known as one of the greatest movies stars of all time.
The mid and late sixties were a time of race relations turmoil. The rhetoric of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and political figures such as Angela Davis, were making inroads into the minds and hearts of Black people. The following year, Jim Brown made a relatively little-known movie called, The Split. I already wrote about that movie here.
As an 11-year-old sitting in the darkened theater, Jim Brown portrayed a character I had never seen on the screen before. I distinctively remember thinking that this guy (Brown) was definitely not Sidney Poitier. I was blown away by this movie. Brown played a kick-ass character who had to kill many white people to stay alive. In the end, he walked away from it unscathed (even though his girlfriend was killed). This was such a departure from what I was used to; it immediately made me think of Sydney Poitiers movies as embarrassingly out of step with the times.
I recognized and related Jim Brown more than I recognized and related to Sydney Poitier. I believe most Black people understood Jim Browm more than Sydney. First, I have never met anyone like Sidney Poitier in real life. But I actually knew many guys like Jim Brown. These were the Black men from my neighborhood. They were living legends whose street exploits were no less intriguing than the mythical stories of the wild west. Some were thugs or gang leaders, as some people from a different culture might expect. But many of these men were regular working-class fellows that took no shit from anyone! My grandfather was one of those men. He ran illegal numbers, and in Harlem, people would cross the street when they saw him coming. I would never have confused him with Sidney Poiter.
For the most part, the character Sidney Poitier was manufactured. In this sense, I use the term character in that Sidney, the man himself, helped shape his persona; he portrayed his character stripped of even the slightest hint of aggressiveness. Even his so-called bad guy roles were performed with a streak of benevolence. His characters seemed to be above the fray of any moral ambiguities. This is why I have never met anyone like Sydney Poitier in the natural world. He did not exist in my world, at least. He was accepted by all Americans, regardless of race; Sidney hovered in a mutual zone during his whole career. In the neutral zone, celebrities have to be unclear about their political leanings. It was ok to be on the side of civil rights, as long as he did not go too close to the rhetoric of Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown.
Black people accepted Sidney because Blacks were mostly servants and buffoons before he came along. Many movies were spoiled when Blacks saw how they were depicted on the big screen throughout an untelevised world. So even though they may not have totally loved Sidney’s movies, they take that well over the bulging eyes and clownish demeanor of Stepin Fetchit. White people loved Poitier too. And why not? The non-threatening Poitier would make an excellent houseguest.
One thing cannot be disputed; Sydney Poitier opened the door and set the standard of Black performers that followed him. Though the standard models have been reimagined throughout the years, his career is still a considerable part of the foundation of Black entertainment.
Sure, he played it safe. He was the first and wanted to make sure his work did not hinder the career of those that followed in his footsteps. We can’t blame him. Obama did the exact same thing. He was the first Black President and went out of his way to ensure he would not be the last Black President. Ditto for Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe. All nice guys who had to move through their area with strength and grace, to ensure that the others that came behind them would have an easier time on the path to fulfilling their potential.
There had to be a bridge between the Mammie and clown depictions of the first fifty years of Hollywood, to the modern, ever-evolving depictions and diversity in movies we watch now. Sydney Poitier provided that bridge for others to follow in his path. And if depicting the Black race with dignity and grace is the worst thing we can criticize him for, then I’ll live with that imperfection without regret.