The power of Sidney Poitier

The New York Times
New York Published: Jan 10, 2022, 11:11 PM(IST)

Sidney Poitier Photograph:( The New York Times )

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Four critics for The New York Times reflect on Sidney Poitier’s influence and legacy on cinema. 

When Sidney Poitier died Thursday at 94, tributes poured forth for him, the first Black performer to win the Academy Award for best actor, and a man whom President Joe Biden called a “once-in-a-generation actor and advocate” whose work “changed the world on and off the big screen."

Four critics for The New York Times reflect on Poitier’s influence and legacy.

A Face to Remember

The elegance, the poise, the steely spine — but, oh, the face — when I think of Sidney Poitier, I first think of how beautiful he was and the sheer physical perfection of the man. He had the kind of old-fashioned Hollywood beauty and glamour that made the movies and made audiences dream and desire, turning them into repeat customers. There was much more to Poitier, yes, and he will be rightly remembered as a towering figure in the civil rights movement, one that has always been fought on the screen and not only in the streets and courts. But we should also honor and be grateful for his beauty, what it meant and what it did.

Physical beauty has its obvious attractions, but it can be a powerful weapon, too. That’s one reason Jim Crow Hollywood had such profound difficulty with Black beauty, which threatened the racist order that the industry upheld, reproduced and eagerly helped legitimize for its audiences. It’s also why Walter White, the head of the NAACP, said in the 1940s that Lena Horne would be an “interesting weapon” against Hollywood racism. The industry ignored and marginalized Black performers, relegating them to the margins of the frame, where they often wore servant costumes and spoke in insulting dialect if they even said anything. Sometimes their names weren’t in the credits; at times their musical numbers were edited out.

The most instructive racist tell is that the industry’s self-censoring Production Code banned sexual relations between Black and white performers — not all people of color, just Black. Hollywood banned what the code called miscegenation until 1957. At that point, Poitier had been acting in movies for a decade. He had made some intriguing films, and his name was being featured more prominently in the advertising. The next year, though, he catapulted to another level with the release of “The Defiant Ones,” about two escaped prisoners who are chained together and, while on the run, grow to care for each other. Directed by Stanley Kramer, it is a prime example of liberal white Hollywood at its most sincere and self-congratulatory.

However hokey, exasperating and contradictory “The Defiant Ones” is, there is also no denying the charms and charisma of its two very handsome and exceedingly fit leads. Poitier wasn’t thrilled when Tony Curtis, who was trying to escape his pretty-boy image, was cast as the other prisoner. But it was apparently Curtis who asked that the two men share top billing, even though contractually only Curtis had that privilege. This immeasurably elevated Poitier’s stature, as did the movie’s great box-office success, making him a bona fide star. I have to think that the jaw-dropping lollapalooza of a poster for “The Defiant Ones” also had something to do with both its success and Poitier’s transformation into a matinee idol.

The poster is drawn and vaguely reminiscent of the work of painter George Bellows with a touch of Tom of Finland. It shows two heavily muscled prisoners facing each other while still chained, snarling and bare-chested. The two figures don’t look much like the performers that they’re meant to represent; instead, they look like bodybuilders who, after mainlining steroids to bulk up, have lost their minds and found themselves in scalding water. The poster emphasizes their antagonism, which may have appealed to some high-minded American audiences. Mostly and unambiguously, the poster was doing what film posters often did: It was selling sex through two semi-naked hotties who were definitely going to get down <em>somehow.</em>

This was different from the grotesquely racist images of brutish Black masculinity that the movies had historically trafficked in a la “The Birth of a Nation.” Here were two men, Black and white, chained together and forced into a fateful union. In the poster, the Poitier figure is positioned slightly higher than the Curtis one and has one hand on the chain, as if to pull the other man closer. This gesture may have been another white liberal appeal, but in one sense, it also represents Poitier’s historic position as a crossover star, someone who could take up equal space on screen alongside white performers, including in friendships, as in the lovely “Paris Blues” (1961), in which his and Paul Newman’s jazz musicians share a palpably warm camaraderie.

In time, Poitier was also cast as the romantic lead alongside white actresses, although it was complicated. In “A Patch of Blue” (1965), his character becomes involved with a blind woman, and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), he plays a caricature of perfection who gently rocks the world of his young white fiancee’s parents. Hollywood had understood and profited from Poitier’s magnetism, and it wanted to continue to exploit it yet also wanted him restrained, polite, sexless. It couldn’t deal with his full humanity. One of the few times that he had played a rounded character, one who was desiring and desirable, was in “Paris Blues,” in which his character has a romance with Diahann Carroll. (The story originally featured an interracial affair.)

In 1967, the Times published a profile of Poitier with the headline “He Doesn’t Want to Be Sexless Sidney.” It’s a sobering, tough read. He had found success, certainly, but he was frustrated, noting that he had never worked on screen in a “man-woman relationship that was not symbolic.” He wasn’t interested in “a romantic interlude” with a white woman. He wanted to work with Black actresses. He wanted to put Black women on a pedestal. He wanted to give his daughters “a sense of self” and “the concept of beauty” that TV commercials didn’t provide them. He wanted to make the movies he wanted to make. From then on, he said, “I will continue to be a hero, but I won’t be a neuter,” a purposeful, profound declaration of independence.

Two years later, Poitier founded his own production company, First Artists, with Newman and Barbra Streisand. In 1972, he made his directorial debut with the Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he played a former Union soldier, Buck, who leads Black wagon trains from Louisiana to Kansas. Ruby Dee played his wife, and Harry Belafonte was Preacher. Together, they ride and rob and fight to shepherd Black families to safety. It’s a wonderful, loose, galvanizing film, the start of a directing career that included hits such as “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again.” He made the movies he had sought to make.

In his 1967 interview, he said, “I have not made my peace with the times — they are still out of kilter — but I have made my peace with myself.” The times remained out of kilter, even as Poitier kept rising above them. — MANOHLA DARGIS

A Career of Glory and Contradiction

Poitier became a star, and was nominated for his first Oscar, in “The Defiant Ones” (1958), a buddy movie that might be thought of as the “Green Book” of its time: a nobly intentioned fable of racial reconciliation compromised by dubious conventions and sentimental assumptions about life in America. In “The Devil Finds Work,” his book-length dismantling of Hollywood mythology, James Baldwin described it as “a film with people we are accustomed to seeing in the movies. Well: all except one.”

That one was Poitier, and Baldwin’s next sentence captures the glory and contradiction that would define the actor’s career. “The irreducible difficulty of this genuinely well-meaning film is that no one, clearly, was able to foresee what Poitier would do with his role — nor was anyone, thereafter, able to undo it — and his performance, which lends the film its only real distinction, also, paradoxically, smashes it to pieces.”

Poitier, called upon to embody a fantasy figure who would disarm the suspicions of some white viewers and flatter the self-regard of others, chose instead to play his character, Noah Cullen, as a human being. “There is no way to believe Noah Cullen <em>and</em> the story,” Baldwin observed, and the same could be said for Virgil Tibbs and “In the Heat of the Night” and John Prentice and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (both from 1967). Poitier made those movies worth watching, even as his craft and charisma worked to expose their limitations. He was more than a pioneer; he was a revolutionary. He didn’t just make it in Hollywood. He remade Hollywood. — A.O. SCOTT

Insisting on Giving a Slap Back

In an instant, Poitier moved America into the age of Black Power. The year, 1967. The movie, “In the Heat of the Night.” In the scene, debonair Virgil Tibbs (Poitier), a Black homicide detective from Philadelphia, now in Sparta, Mississippi, is questioning Endicott (Larry Gates), a wealthy white plantation owner, about a murder. Angered, Endicott slaps him. Empowered, Tibbs slaps him back.

My family referred to it as “the slap heard around the world.” Poitier has said he insisted that the slap back be added to the script.

For a generation of African Americans, like my mother, who came of age during the civil rights movement, Virgil Tibbs was a revelation. He was practicing self-defense, while the movement leaders championed nonviolence. He channeled Black rage in an era of racial forgiveness. And as played by Poitier, Tibbs was so dignified and charismatic on screen — the embodiment of Black excellence — that stereotypes about Black inferiority, often used by men like Endicott to justify segregation in the real world, appeared completely absurd and antiquated.

Just as important, Poitier modeled a new image of Black masculinity — controlled, defiant, intellectual — that helped liberate the next generation of African Americans. — SALAMISHAH TILLET

When a Giant Played a Giant 

Late in his career, Poitier found a space on television for the kind of inspirational performances that had marked his decades in film. In the 1991 miniseries “Separate but Equal,” he played Thurgood Marshall, challenging school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case; John J. O’Connor, a critic for the Times, called his performance “simply splendid.”

The last of his great roles was as anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in the 1997 Showtime film “Mandela and de Klerk,” opposite Michael Caine as F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who released Mandela from prison and negotiated the end of apartheid with him.

The film, available to rent on Amazon, is a typically dutiful, straightforward cable historical drama. But it’s elevated by Poitier’s complex performance, which synthesizes Mandela the icon and Mandela the man. His Mandela is wily, steely, patient and quick-witted, but careful with every word.

Maybe one reason for the performance’s potency is the resonance between actor and character. Mandela, the film points out, was seen as a terrorist by the white government yet also wrestled with more-militant factions of his own party, much as Poitier himself took flak for the straight-arrow characters with which he helped integrate Hollywood. Mandela pursued a revolution from confinement, much as Poitier changed the movies despite the strictures on his roles.

And Mandela, according to a story shared by actor Will Smith in 2007, was influenced by Poitier himself, having watched “In the Heat of the Night” while imprisoned. After later learning that South African prison authorities had censored the scene in which Poitier’s character slaps a white man, Mandela was heartened by “the idea that American movies were putting out that type of imagery,” which meant that “the possibility of change is real and obtainable.”

Poitier’s most intriguing TV role, however, was one he never took: He was offered the role of president in NBC’s “The West Wing” that ultimately went to Martin Sheen. It’s tantalizing to wonder how the series might have been different had a late-career Poitier played a Black president, nearly a decade before Barack Obama. But it remains true, fictional presidency or no, that Sidney Poitier led America from the screen. — JAMES PONIEWOZIK
 

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