Sidney Poitier: The Jackie Robinson of Hollywood

The death of Betty White — a relatively minor TV star who appeared in a couple of popular sitcoms in the 1970s and ‘80s and managed to live nearly to 100 — was the lead story on all three network evening newscasts a couple of weeks ago. The death Friday of Sidney Poitier — an immensely more important figure in American popular culture — was given the usual, end-of-broadcast “passing of an icon” treatment. A shame. 

Not long ago I did some research on Poitier, for a project that never got off the ground, and wrote a bit about him. I’d like to reprint some of it here (at a little more length than usual), in tribute to a remarkable man and a unique career: 

Decades before “Oscar So White” — the era when Hollywood really was all white — Sidney Poitier was the indispensable pioneer.

He was the only Black actor to consistently get starring roles in major Hollywood films through most of the 1950s and ‘60s; the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field in 1963); a bankable box-office star and Hollywood’s one-man embodiment of racial diversity for most of a decade, from The Defiant Ones in 1958 to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967. Most of his films dealt, explicitly or implicitly, with issues of race relations, though typically through Hollywood’s liberal, often simplified and sentimental lens. By the late ‘60s, Poitier was drawing criticism from more militant Black leaders, as well as some film critics and Black intellectuals, for his invariably noble, idealized (and sexless) characters – the sort of nonthreatening Black man that a white audience could accept. And yet his very presence on screen, his charisma as an actor, and the messages of racial tolerance that his popular films conveyed, did as much to acclimate mainstream white America to the idea of racial equality as any civil rights leader of the era.

He was born in Miami in 1927, the youngest of seven children, but grew up in the Bahamas, where his parents were tomato farmers. He dropped out of school and moved to New York at age 16, where he supported himself with dishwashing work; lied about his age to get into the Army; and, after wrangling a psychiatric discharge, broke into acting as a member of the American Negro Theater company.  

He made his movie debut in 1949, when he was cast as a young emergency-room doctor forced to treat a vicious white bigot (Richard Widmark) in Joseph Mankiewicz’s forceful anti-racism drama, No Way Out. That got him noticed by producer-director Zoltan Korda, who brought him to South Africa to co-star in a film adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s celebrated novel about that country’s racial injustices. 

But movie roles after that did not come easily. Major parts for Black actors were scarce in the early 1950s, and Poitier turned down what he considered demeaning roles. What’s more, at the height of the McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria, Poitier’s friendship with left-leaning Black actors like Paul Robeson and Canada Lee made producers wary of hiring him. Poitier, meanwhile, continued working on his craft by taking classes at the Actors Workshop; started a family (he married model Juanita Hardy in 1950); and sought a more stable income by teaming with a friend to open a barbecue restaurant in Harlem.   

His big breakthrough came when he was cast (at age 27) as a rebellious high school student in Blackboard Jungle, Richard Brooks’s grimly topical film about a teacher’s efforts to tame an unruly class of inner-city high school students. (The studio asked Poitier to sign a loyalty oath in order to get the job, but he refused. Brooks hired him anyway.) With its memorable opening credits set to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and its unsparing treatment of the hot-button issue of “juvenile delinquency,” Blackboard Jungle was one of the most talked-about films of 1955, and Poitier’s dynamic performance — as the redeemable tough guy in a classroom of incorrigibles —was the film’s clear stand-out.

That led to more and bigger roles. He played a longshoreman facing racial bigotry in the critically acclaimed TV drama A Man Is Ten Feet Tall, and later in the film adaptation, Edge of the City. In 1957 producer Samuel Goldwyn tapped Poitier to star in his much-anticipated movie version of the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Poitier was reluctant to take on a role that many in the Black community considered demeaning (and he had no singing voice). But he agreed as part of a deal that enabled him to play another part that he coveted: as an escaped convict chained to a white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in Stanley Kramer’s drama The Defiant Ones. The movie, with its strong (if hardly subtle) message of racial tolerance, drew eight Oscar nominations, including Poitier’s first nod for Best Actor. 

The success of The Defiant Ones made Poitier the most sought-after Black actor in America. He starred in both the Broadway production and the 1961 movie version of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama A Raisin in the Sun. In 1963’s Lilies of the Field, he played an itinerant Army veteran who helps a group of nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert — a feel-good role that won him the Oscar for Best Actor. His soft-sell approach to racial messaging was epitomized by his 1965 film A Patch of Blue, in which he plays a kindly office worker who befriends a young, uneducated blind woman and helps her escape an abusive home life. The gentle film, with its hints of a (never-consummated) interracial romance, was a surprise box-office hit. It even did well in the South — despite the excision of an eight-second scene in which the two have their one and only kiss.  

All that was merely prelude to Poitier’s annus mirabilis of 1967, when he was the star of no fewer than three hit films: To Sir With Love, in which he flips the Blackboard Jungle script and plays a teacher who tames a classroom of unruly high-school students in London’s East End; In the Heat of the Night, as a Philadelphia homicide detective who helps a small-town Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a racially charged local murder (the year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture); and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, as one half of an interracial couple who must overcome resistance to their impending marriage during a fraught dinner with both sets of ostensibly liberal parents. 

Poitier was acutely aware of his symbolic position as Hollywood’s leading representative of Black America. He chose his roles carefully, always striving to present the most positive role models in a film world where Blacks were historically confined to demeaning, stereotypical parts as maids and janitors. He turned down several opportunities to play Othello, the great Shakespearean role for actors of color. (“A bad part,” he said; “I see now that the character is a little wanting.”) During rehearsals for A Raisin in the Sun, he fought with playwright Lorraine Hansberry to make his character — the only male in a ghetto-dwelling family of strong women — more assertive and central to the play. He embraced uplifting stories, in which racial prejudice is exposed and overcome. “I try to make motion pictures about the dignity, nobility, the magnificence of human life,” he said. 

But by the late 1960s, as the integrationist goals of the early civil rights movement were being challenged by younger, more militant leaders with a rallying cry of “Black Power,” Poitier’s virtuous, idealized Black characters began to draw criticism. Some denounced his screen image as “Uncle Tom refurbished,” or a “Negro in white-face.” Pauline Kael, the influential New Yorker film critic, complained that Poitier’s “self-inflicted stereotype of goodness is destroying a beautiful, graceful, and potentially brilliant actor.” Clifford Mason, the Black author and critic, lambasted him on the front page of the New York Times Sunday arts section, in an article entitled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?,” denouncing his films for conveying a message “that the Negro is best served by being a black version of the man in the gray flannel suit, taking on white problems and a white man’s sense of the world.” 

These attacks wounded Poitier. He called Mason’s article “the most devastating and unfair piece of journalism I had ever seen.” Yet he also recognized that his success had not necessarily benefited other actors of color in Hollywood. “When a good part for a Negro actor does come along, they always offer it to Sidney Poitier,” said actor Bill Gunn. “If he turns it down, they rewrite it for a white actor.” Poitier was disturbed by this, and he spoke out. “I can’t believe that I, Sidney Poitier, am the only man of talent for films from among 20 million Negro people,” he said. “It’s simply that Hollywood will not give people of my race a chance.” 

By the early ‘70s, however, Poitier’s film career was on the wane. With the rise of the Blaxploitation films, and younger action stars like Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier, Sidney Poitier increasingly seemed like an actor out of joint with the times. He reprised his character of Detective Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night in two pale sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization. He made an awkward attempt at romantic comedy in For Love of Ivy, tried to update his image by playing a Black militant on the run from the police in The Lost Man (Joanna Shimkus, the film’s co-star, became his second wife); and co-starred with his friend Harry Belafonte in a racially themed Western, Buck and the Preacher — all box-office disappointments. Eventually he turned to producing and directing, with some successes (such as Uptown Saturday Night, in which he co-starred with Belafonte and Bill Cosby), and in later years landed a few prestige roles befitting his elder-statesman status ­— playing Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela in TV movies in the 1990s. But like many groundbreaking artists, the revolution he helped foment had passed him by.  

None of which can diminish the importance of those transformative two decades in which Sidney Poitier fought a lonely battle to go where no Black actor had gone before. He was the pioneer who lifted African Americans out of the ghetto of Hollywood stereotypes — the shuffling Stepin Fetchit, the colored-mammy roles of Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers — that had prevailed for decades. He couldn’t sing or dance, denying him the more typical path to Hollywood success for Black performers, from Bill (Bojangles) Robinson to Lena Horne. He played doctors and teachers and police detectives —educated, well-spoken, tolerant men who rebutted the illogic of racism by the sheer force of their dignity and goodness. He carried himself with that same dignity off-screen, under what must have been the enormous pressure of being the leading image and spokesman for his race in movies — the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood.

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