Sidney Poitier and the Weight of Blazing Trails

One of my favorite stories about Sidney Poitier is that he was so poor growing up in the Bahamas that he didn’t have access to a mirror until he reached the age of ten when his family moved to Nassau. The only way for Poitier to know what he looked like was to view his reflection in a body of water. This most beautiful of men had no idea just how beautiful he was. Maybe that’s why he lived a life so full of humility and grace.

Poitier would never stand up and tell you what a gorgeous titan of cinema he was, but that’s okay. Because those of us who know (and we are legion) are more than happy to do it for him.

At the age of fifteen Poitier moved to Miami where he would later join the American Negro Theater. Unable to carry a tune and saddled with a Bahamian accent he had to work diligently to rid himself of, success did not come quickly for Poitier. It wasn’t until scoring a leading role in a late ‘40s Broadway production of Lysistrata that he gained notice.

In 1950 Poitier scored his first significant role as a doctor treating a bigoted patient (played by Richard Widmark) in Joseph Mankiewicz’s No Way Out. Strong notices for his performance earned Poitier regular work on film until his breakout performance in Richard Brooks’ The Blackboard Jungle in 1955. It was one of the rare times that Poitier was allowed to play a rebellious character and to put it plainly, he was electric.

After The Blackboard Jungle raised his profile, the quality of roles that came Poitier’s way grew in esteem and visibility. One of my personal favorites is Edge of the City, where he and John Cassavettes play New York City longshoremen who strike up an unlikely friendship. Directed by Martin Ritt, Edge of the City is akin to the “kitchen-sink” Brit dramas of that era and is woefully under-appreciated by historians. It’s a film with real grit, humor, and tragedy. How it isn’t thought of in the same breath as On The Waterfront is a mystery to me. Being of the time he lived in, many of Poitier’s most definitive roles tended to center around race in our society. Often, Poitier played the dignified black man who endured the incivility of others due to the color of his skin. While 1958’s The Defiant Ones has its heart in the right place, and both Poitier and Tony Curtis are fabulous as black and white prisoners chained together, trying to make an escape, it is Curtis who is given the lion’s share of opportunities to express anger, frustration, and rage at his circumstances.

Still, the film was a huge hit, earning Poitier an Oscar nomination for lead actor (making him the first man of color to earn the distinction) and his star continued to rise. He stood out in the musical Porgy and Bess across from Dorothy Dandridge in 1959, and later in that year he reprised his Broadway role as the lead in A Raisin in the Sun on screen.

A Raisin in the Sun was a landmark drama depicting a black family coming into an unexpected windfall of cash and having to decide how best to use it to secure their future. As Walter Lee Younger, Poitier is both completely lived-in as the character who struggles with the decision of how best to employ the funds while also being symbolic of the struggles of black America as a whole. It is truly a titanic performance that somehow was overlooked by the Oscars (although the Golden Globes did nominate Poitier for best actor).

As if to correct their error, the Academy awarded Poitier with the Oscar for best actor for his performance in Lilies of the Field. It’s a rather wholesome film that feels more than a little dated now. Poitier plays a handyman who assists a group of nuns in building a church in the desert. Like I said, pretty wholesome, and while certainly not what I would consider Poitier’s best work, his irrepressible charm more than carries the film to its fairly predictable conclusion.

Much better is 1965’s A Patch of Blue wherein Poitier plays an educated black man who helps an illiterate eighteen-year-old blind white girl (played by Elizabeth Hartman) expand her horizons. A tender friendship gives way (in scenes that were later restored for DVD release) to a tenuous romance. The theatrical cut was more chaste, excising scenes of Poitier and Hartman kissing so as not to drive the bigoted masses of the era to distraction (or worse), but there can be no denying the depth of the relationship between the two protagonists. A Patch of Blue was a sizable success at the box office and with the Academy, earning five Oscar nominations (and a win for Shelley Winters as Hartman’s wicked mother). Somehow, once again, just like with A Raisin in the Sun, Poitier was passed over when the Academy announced the nominees for best actor.

After stringing together more than a decade of successes in movie theaters, Poitier had a magical year in 1967. Starring in three films (To Sir, With LoveIn the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) that were all lavished with critical and box office rewards, Poitier became, as a black man during the civil rights era, the biggest star in the world.

To Sir, an inspirational drama of a West Indian immigrant teacher (Poitier) corralling a rowdy group of East End London high schoolers was a humongous hit. Poitier is largely in a flintier mode here, as an engineer who has never taught before and who struggles to impart discipline in his students while also finding his feet as a first time instructor. Is To Sir a bit sentimental? Sure, but when Lulu sings the theme song, you’ll be hard pressed not to address that moist substance coming out of your eyes.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was an even bigger hit. The film depicts a young interracial couple (Poitier and Katharine Houghton) meeting her skeptical parents on the eve of his intended proposal. Reunited with The Defiant Ones director Stanley Kramer and playing across from screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (in their ninth and final film together), Poitier more than holds his own despite being saddled with a less than complex script that hasn’t aged well. Even so, the success of the film was a step in the right direction not only for the depiction of people of color on screen, but for our society as a whole.

By far, the best of the three films Poitier made in that extraordinary year was Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. Ostensibly, a fish out of water film about a Philadelphia detective named Virgil Tibbs helping a Mississippi sheriff (played by Rod Steiger) solve a local murder, In the Heat of the Night was perhaps the first movie to allow Poitier to go beyond dignified and cross over to unapologetic when it came to his race.

Even now, if you watch the scene where a wealthy white Mississippian backhands Poitier’s detective after taking issue with being questioned by a black man, and Poitier – in lightning quick fashion – returns that slap with greater force than he received, it is still an extraordinary thing to see.

And of course, the film includes one of the greatest lines in cinematic history, when Steiger’s sheriff makes fun of Poitier’s surname.

“That’s a funny name for a ni**er boy that comes from Philadelphia! What do they call you up there?”

To which Poitier replies, with all the pent up frustration of black America in his throat, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

It is a seminal screen moment from a film that holds up better than most racial “issue dramas” of the time.

After that peak in 1967, Poitier’s rate of success slowed some. A sequel to In the Heat of the Night, They Call Me Mister Tibbs, was a critical and box office disappointment. Poitier’s first foray behind the camera, a western called Buck and the Preacher, did well to break even.

However, a trio of action comedies starring Poitier both behind and in front of the camera (across from Bill Cosby), Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do it Again, and A Piece of the Action were all box office successes. After the third film in that trilogy was released in 1977, Poitier worked only as a director for the next eleven years.

In 1980, Poitier would go on to direct the most successful film ever made by a black filmmaker, the Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder prison break comedy Stir Crazy. At the time, the hysterical caper movie made just over $100 million. However, when adjusted for inflation, that sum rises to nearly $345 million. The only movies to outpace Stir Crazy’s grosses in that film year were The Empire Strikes Back, and 9 to 5.

Poitier directed three more films after Stir Crazy. Unfortunately, none of them were a hit with critics or audiences. In 1988, Poitier began acting again, but neither Shoot to Kill nor Little Nikita was well received. His last film role of note was a charming turn in Robert Redford’s 1992 caper film Sneakers.

Poitier did find some work of note on television, earning Emmy nods for playing Thurgood Marshall in 1991’s Separate But Equal, and then as Nelson Mandela in 1997’s Mandela and de Klerk. A handful of TV roles followed, with Poitier last being seen in the TV film The Last Brickmaker in America in 2001.

Poitier would still be seen from time to time. Whether discussing his memoirs, seen in the occasional interview, or handing out an award when some event wanted to class up the proceedings.

What matters most about Poitier is not just what he did as an actor or a director – as wildly significant as those accomplishments are. Sidney Poitier was essentially the Jackie Robinson of film. He is the man who effectively broke Hollywood’s color barrier. His sacrifices, which are mind-boggling to contend with, led to a better day for those who followed him. Is it possible to imagine Denzel Washington as we know him without Sidney Poitier?Denzel himself has more than tipped his hat in the direction of Poitier.

There is a burden that comes with being a trailblazer. The simple fact of it is located in the word itself. For if there were an existing trail, there would be no reason to blaze one. But that is exactly what Sidney Poitier did. And to do it, it wasn’t good enough to be good, or even great. What Sidney Poitier had to do was be something more. Something beyond our imagination. Something that would change the world as we know it. Something perfect.

He was every bit of that and then some.

Sidney Poitier died today. He was 94 years old.

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