Sidney Poitier: Far More Than First

Sidney Poitier in 1972

Sidney Poitier gave us much more than blazed trails. When he passed away last week at the age of ninety-four, it was only natural that his landmark achievements and string of firsts would come immediately to mind. He was the first Black actor to be nominated for an Oscar for best actor, the first to win one, and the first to become the top box office draw in the country.

He scored that last triumph in 1967, when he appeared in To Sir, with Love; then in In the Heat of the Night that summer; and, as that remarkable year drew to a close, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. “Even now, I suspect, Mr. Poitier’s legacy really has been reduced to his firstness,” writes Wesley Morris in his moving appreciation for the New York Times. “And that’s not nothing, either. He was summoned to symbolize Black America, single-handedly.”

Poitier answered the call—and then some. “I believe with all my heart that Mr. Poitier was as crucial in the odyssey of freedom and equality for Black Americans—for personhood—as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as Martin Luther King Jr.,” writes Morris. Beyond the political and cultural impact of his career arc, though—and even beyond his participation in the March on Washington in 1963 or the trip down to Mississippi the following year when he and Harry Belafonte, narrowly escaping the police and the Klan, delivered $70,000 stuffed into a doctor’s bag to Freedom Summer volunteers—Poitier brought a singular presence to American cinema. Morris notes that like “every significant star before him—Clark Gable, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West—Poitier made being in a movie look to the manner born. His least inspired line readings retain a spark of passion.”

The Poitiers grew tomatoes on a farm they owned on Cat Island in the central Bahamas and made regular trips up to Miami to sell their crop. Sidney, the youngest of seven children, was born prematurely on one of those trips, the silver lining being that he was automatically eligible for U.S. citizenship. When Sidney was ten, the family moved to Nassau, which is where he would have seen his first movies. At fourteen, he left the Bahamas for Miami, and a year later, he took a bus up to New York City.

After a string of odd jobs and an unhappy stint in the army, Poitier auditioned for the American Negro Theater. It did not go well. He didn’t realize that he was supposed to have prepared a monologue and he could barely read the text he was handed. His West Indian accent was still thick. Listening to the radio, he worked on his enunciation and a waiter at the restaurant where he was washing dishes helped him improve his reading skills. He landed an unpaid job as a janitor at the theater’s acting school, and one day, Belafonte didn’t arrive in time for a rehearsal. Poitier stepped in, and in 1946, he scored a role in an all-Black production of Lysistrata.

Four years later, Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast Poitier in No Way Out(1950) as the first Black doctor at a hospital where two white racist brothers are brought in with gunshot wounds. When one dies, the other (Richard Widmark), spewing slurs, vows revenge. “Poitier’s mesmerizing performance in No Way Out—it takes talent and nerve to stare down Richard Widmark—never feels like a formulaic construct,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s full of repressed pain, controlled fury, and a wholly understandable, deeply human fear. It also showed, even at that early stage of his career, a leading man’s fully formed charisma.”

Poitier played Reverend Msimangu in a 1951 adaptation of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country directed by Zoltán Korda and a rebellious but talented student at an inner-city school in Richard Brook’s Blackboard Jungle (1955). For Robert Daniels at, a standout performance from these years is Poitier’s turn as a supervisor on a Manhattan shipping dock who befriends a drifter (John Cassavetes) in Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957). “It wasn’t the first time the actor assumed the role of a respected, steadfast African American working toward interracial friendship,” writes Daniels. “But there’s a charm here, a sweet sense of humor and a nimbleness to his mien that feels like the moment where Poitier firmly cracked the code for the persona that would define his career.”

In Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), Poitier’s Noah and Tony Curtis’s Joker, another white racist, are escaped prisoners shackled together at the wrist because “the warden had a sense of humor.” Poitier won a Silver Bear in Berlin and his first Oscar nomination. Curtis, by the way, was also nominated—it was his first and only nomination—but the Oscar went to David Niven for his turn as a debonair British major in Delbert Mann’s Separate Tables.

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first Black female playwright to have a show on Broadway. Set in a cramped apartment on Chicago’s South Side, A Raisin in the Sun centers on Walter Lee Younger’s dreams of pulling his family out of poverty by investing a $10,000 life insurance check in a liquor store. The original cast, led by Poitier and including Ruby Dee, appeared in the 1961 adaptation written by Hansberry and directed by Daniel Petrie. As Walter Lee, Poitier “allows the character to traverse a moral arc from self-centered ambition to racial pride in way that feels organic and unprogrammatic,” writes Ty Burr, and the role “gave Poitier a climactic speech that retains a trace of Broadway actorliness even as it’s imbued with genuine emotional power.”

In Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961), Poitier and Paul Newman are expat jazz musicians romancing American tourists played by Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward. “It’s a sophisticated adult love story in which Poitier has an opportunity to be romantic and sexy—itself a revolutionary thing for its time—and my goodness, the chemistry he had with Carroll could fog up a mirror,” writes NPR’s Aisha Harris. “The racial politics in this movie feel more contemporary and less like the dreams of a Hollywood factory, with Poitier and Carroll’s characters debating the merits of Black life in America versus Black life abroad in between the sparks.”

Nominated for a second time for his performance in Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963), in which he plays a traveling handyman who helps a group of East German nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert, Poitier finally won that Oscar. “Hard to begrudge him the plaudits, of course, but this gentle liberal offering from the Civil Rights era is too busy being audience-friendly to count for much,” writes Time Out’s Trevor Johnston. Lilies of the Field “might be significant as an early independent movie made good, but Poitier got better when he got angrier for In the Heat of the Night four years later.”

With a screenplay based on John Ball’s 1965 novel, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night gave Poitier the line you’ll see and hear him deliver in every montage video tribute to the actor. When Rod Steiger’s Bill Gillespie, the police chief in a small town in Mississippi, shoots the N-word at Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs, a top homicide inspector, and then asks what they call him up in Philadelphia, the answer comes with a steady and deliberate accent on every syllable: “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

It’s another scene, though, that has taken on greater significance over the years, a scene that, as the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips writes, “lit a fire everywhere”—the “slap heard around the world.” When a plantation owner Tibbs and Gillespie are interrogating slaps Tibbs, Tibbs slaps right back without a moment’s hesitation. “There’s no close-up for emphasis, no cut, no music,” writes Phillips. “It’s almost unassuming, as well as being culturally momentous. Poitier’s reaction isn’t movie-star swagger; it’s simply human, and just.”

“The refreshingly fiery Poitier was certainly not leaning on what was established about his image,” writes K. Austin Collins in his essay for our release. Poitier’s performance as a Black man “better off and better educated” than all the white characters around him embodies the “double bind of being beholden to liberal representation, for the sake of one’s career, while also trying to satisfy an oft-belittled, underserved, complex audience. Of playing a trope, however well-written, while trying to bring a real Black rage, a simmering bit of metatext about the role itself, to the movie’s politics.”

Poitier had to tamp it way down in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He plays a doctor engaged to a white woman who brings him home to introduce to her parents. As Michael Phillips observes, he’s “basically there to prop up the conversion therapy his future in-laws, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, undergo, methodically, one monologue at a time.” Phillips finds the film “hard to watch now,” but Variety’s Tim Gray reminds us that it was only six months before it opened when the Supreme Court overturned the laws against interracial marriage that were still in effect in seventeen states. “While the message of tolerance in Guess Who’s Coming may seem hoary,” writes Gray, “it was an eye-opener to many.”

By 1967, though, some audiences were losing patience with Poitier. There were over 150 riots across the nation that summer, and as Donald Bogle put it in his 1973 book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, Poitier was still playing the “perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner.” In 1967, the New York Times ran a scathing piece by Black playwright Clifford Mason, "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?"

The paper also ran a profile that year in which Joan Bartel asked Poitier, “Could your consistent portrayal of lovable neuters be considered playing the white Hollywood Establishment Game?” Bartel noted that the answer came quickly. “I wouldn’t call it ‘playing along,’” said Poitier. “It’s a choice, a clear choice. I would not have it so, and if the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game. Not when there is only one Negro actor working in films with any degree of consistency, when there are thousands of actors in films, you follow?”

Writing for the Nation, Gene Seymour quotes from James Baldwin’s 1968 profile of Poitier for Look magazine: “‘Know from whence you came,’ Sidney once said to me, and Sidney, his detractors to the contrary, does know whence he came. But it can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate, and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.”

In a conversation about what the juxtaposition of the careers of the late Peter Bogdanovich and Poitier reveals about the history of Hollywood, New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott bring up Buck and the Preacher (1972), a western led by a Black cast—and Poitier’s directorial debut. He plays Buck, a former soldier leading a train of wagons steered by Black settlers into the Kansas Territory of the 1860s. Belafonte is the preacher, and Ruby Dee plays Buck’s wife. The shooting begins when Louisiana plantation owners send a posse of white men to scatter or even kill the settlers.

Buck and the Preacher is a film “we both adore as much for its behind-the-scenes story as the one onscreen,” writes Dargis. As Scott tells it, producers Belafonte and Poitier were not getting on well with director Joseph Sargent. “Shooting had already started in Mexico,” notes Scott, “and Poitier offered to take over temporarily so the production could keep going while the studio looked for someone else. ‘Finally they called and said, “Why don’t you just continue shooting?”’ Poitier remembered years later. ‘That’s how I started directing. I was just thrown into it.’”

Poitier kept at it, directing himself and Bill Cosby in three hit comedies, Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977), and then directing Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy (1980). In the Los Angeles Times, Greg Baxton looks back on his 2000 interview with Poitier and notes that the actor and director “took a while when I asked him to name his favorite performance or movie. He said he was pleased with moments in The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, and A Warm December [1973]. Then he slowly smiled: ‘And A Piece of the Action. I remember seeing that again not along ago. And I can say to myself, “That was it. I got close to the mark.”’”

In 2002, the Academy presented an honorary Oscar to Poitier, and that same night, Denzel Washington became the second Black performer to win the best actor Oscar for his turn in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. Accepting the award, Washington said, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.” That night, Halle Berry won best actress, then Jamie Foxx won in 2004, followed by Forest Whitaker in 2006.

Oscars for supporting performances have since gone to Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Hudson, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Mahershala Ali, and and others. In his tribute to Poitier for Entertainment Weekly, Mark Harris, who wrote extensively and beautifully about the actor in his 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, suggests that the “greatest tribute one can pay to Poitier may be to say that his passing does not leave a void.”

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