This week’s fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington rightly focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King, whose “I Have a Dream” speech galvanized a nation. But it’s worth noting Hollywood’s visible presence at the march. It was not merely black performers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Diahann Carroll who took a visible role on that day. Steven J. Ross’s invaluable Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics recounts how such superstars as Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, and Tony Curtis made their presence felt. The leader of the Screen Actors Guild delegation was Moses himself, Charlton Heston. He had deliberately been chosen by singer-activist Harry Belafonte, because of his appeal in the American heartland.
But I want to focus on another Hollywood participant, Sidney Poitier. Though much less overtly political than his friend Belafonte, Poitier too joined that symbolic march to the Lincoln Memorial. But it was his presence on the nation’s movie screens that really made the difference. On August 28, 1963, America had yet to see Lilies of the Field, the charming film that would net Poitier the first Best Actor Oscar ever won by a black man. But from 1950 onward, he had an unprecedented career as an African-American whom the world could accept as a full-fledged screen hero. True, some of his early roles were silly and melodramatic, as when he played Rau-Ru, the secret son of Clark Gable (yes, really!) in a Civil War melodrama called Band of Angels. But more typically he took on realistic roles with a large dollop of dignity. In his very first film, No Way Out, he was the noble Dr. Luther Brooks, who was hard-pressed to perform his medical duties because of the racists in his midst. And he gravitated toward portraying educated men -- doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers -- throughout his career.
In 1955’s groundbreaking Blackboard Jungle, Poitier was an unruly high school student whose leadership qualities eventually came to the fore. But the role that sealed his reputation as a civil rights icon was, ironically, one that friends urged him not to play. In 1962’s The Defiant Ones, he shed his usual middle-class dignity to portray an escaped felon shackled to a white man (Tony Curtis). During their odyssey through the American South, both slowly and painfully discover tolerance . . . and even brotherly love. African-American novelist James Baldwin found the film’s ending an insulting nullification of the black man’s well-honed survival instincts. In a long essay on Hollywood called The Devil Makes Work, he noted that “liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy.” By contrast, said Baldwin, “the Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’”
Though some black Americas may have been outraged, much of white America was happy to adopt Poitier as a symbol of future racial reconciliation. Part of the credit must go to director Stanley Kramer, who cast Poitier in this role, and then used him in two additional landmark films, Pressure Point and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That’s why the increasingly reclusive Poitier showed up for the opening of the StanleyKramer Centennial celebration, and wrote a letter praising a man who “had the insight and courage to bring to the forefront social issues that were difficult to address, and commonly ignored, by the general public.”
Kramer had the courage of his convictions, but Poitier embodied those convictions on screen, showing America how to move ahead. Methinks we need him still.
|On opening night of the Stanley Kramer Centennial at the Billy Wilder Theater, Poitier poses with Karen Sharpe Kramer (left) and Kat Kramer|