Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Importance of Being Sidney (Poitier)

How well I remember the evening in 1964 when Sidney Poitier became Hollywood’s first African American winner of the Oscar for Best Actor. The film was Lilies of the Field, in which he played a wanderer in the parched American Southwest who is persuaded by some feisty German nuns to build a chapel for the glory of God. It’s a charming movie, one that could raise few hackles among those who were made uneasy as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam. My parents and I were thrilled that the film industry had gotten it right, giving its highest honor to someone who so clearly symbolized social progress.

 It wasn’t Sidney Poitier’s fault that he was the right man at the right time. Starting in the late 1950s, Hollywood was realizing that African Americans should be seen as more than Pullman porters, shoeshine boys, and lazy household retainers in the Stepin Fetchit mold. Tall, handsome, and ebony-skinned, Poitier fit naturally into hero roles, and had neither opportunity nor inclination to try for a broader range of parts, such as those that later Black actors like Denzel Washington have enjoyed. Even while playing an escaped convict in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), Poitier displayed a natural nobility that inspired white audiences while sometimes annoying Black intellectuals. James Baldwin noted in The Devil Makes Work how “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!’”

 Karen Kramer, who became close to Poitier through her director-husband, admits that, off-camera, Poitier “didn’t know where he belonged. He was not completely accepted by the white community, and he was stepping out of bounds with the black community. So he was in limbo there.” Rod Steiger, Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night co-star, later revealed how Poitier chafed at being designated the Prince of his People: “They put this image on him, for chrissake. He couldn’t yell, couldn’t swear, couldn’t do anything, ‘cause he was the prince of the black race.” This awkward label made Poitier jealously guard his private hours, and contributed to his hypersensitivity about his reputation with the moviegoing public.

 By the mid-Sixties, Poitier’s roles invariably showcased a man alone, set apart from society by the color of his skin. Never was he allowed such basic things as romance or even sexual urges. In 1965 he twice starred opposite gifted white actresses: Elizabeth Hartman as a needy blind girl in A Patch of Blue; Anne Bancroft as a suicidal matron at the other end of a telephone hotline in The Slender Thread. In both films he shows compassion, but also physical detachment. In the Heat of the Night makes it clear, in a key scene, that he’s a loner, a cop married to his job.

 In the banner year 1967, when Poitier was Hollywood’s biggest box office draw, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fomented even more ire among Black viewers, because it celebrated their Sidney as the unexpected fiancé of a (rather vapid) white woman. The film prompted a young Black playwright, Clifford Mason, to publish in the New York Times a scathing take-down titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?”  Recently Mason explained to me his vitriol toward Poitier as an outgrowth of dashed expectations. He’d hoped for a leading Black actor who could truly tackle the hard issues. Mason now phrases his disappointment in movie terms: “I wanted Bogart, but all I got was Cary Grant.”




  1. Hi Bev. Hope the New Year is going well for you and your family. I felt terrible for Sydney-still do. There was No Way he could possibly honor his race,
    work in racist Hollywood and keep his (public) integrity all at the same time, the racial world is too frighteningly complex and dangerous. He was the movie equivalent of my beloved (and probably yours Ms. Dodger fan) Jackie Robinson, no matter which option he chose (including supporting horrific Nixon for while) he was severely criticized. I hope Sidney, like Jackie, was at peace with himself at the end, as ground breakers they deserve it. There are too few with such talent AND integrity. Best, Bob.

  2. Bob, I think your comparison with Jackie Robinson (yes, I'm a fan)is an excellent one. And I think we can agree that it's never easy to be a ground-breaker. Thanks, as always, for chiming in.

  3. If you get a chance read Micheal Schumann’s piece about Sidney, his Oscar and our memory of pre-Civil Rights Hollywood in The New Yorker. Jackie shows up in the second sentence and Clifford Mason further down the line. The piece reinforces your POV that the Oscar, though glistening and invaluable, was for him like a perpetual noose around his noble neck. Funny comment from Tony Cutis (Schwartz) regarding their Oscar chances regarding The Defiant Ones too. Best to ya. Bob

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Bob. Schumann's piece sounds fascinating. I wonder what it says about my buddy Cliff (yes, we're Internet pals).

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