Sidney Poitier: the first black movie star

Being real

Sidney PoitierIt’s fair to say that Sidney Poitier was the first black movie star. There were a number of black performers actors who preceded him. But as the Hollywood Reporter noted, he was a “Regal Star of the Big Screen.” As a friend of mine noted, he had a “true presence.”

“Poitier was the first actor to star in mainstream Hollywood movies that depicted a Black man in a non-stereotypical fashion, and his influence, especially during the 1950s and ’60s as a role model and image-maker, was immeasurable.” I was generally aware when he put out a new film, whether I saw it or not. When I was in my AME Zion church growing up, I might overhear, “Sidney’s in a new picture,” as though he were family.

As the Vanity Fair piece noted: “Poitier knew that as Hollywood’s sole Black leading man, everyone was constantly watching him—looking for him to set an example. Poitier was ‘the only one… I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made…’ While this responsibility may sound crushing, Poitier rose to the occasion, imbuing all of his roles with a dignity that stretched beyond whatever character he happened to be playing, whether doctor or prisoner.”

The flicks

Here are some of the films I’ve seen him in:

The Defiant Ones (1958) – on TV, I’ve seen big chunks of this prison break movie with Tony Curtis. He was the first black person to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – I’ve seen several iterations of the story, including this one. I’ve long felt my father identified with Walter Lee Younger
Lilies of the Field (1963) – the first black man to win an acting Oscar. I caught it many years later. It’s a sweet clash of cultures. He played “an itinerant handyman who helps a flock of Central European nuns build a chapel”

In The Heat of the Night (1967) – when the witness slaps him, and he slaps him back, to the amazement of the local cop (Rod Steiger), I said, possibly aloud, omigodomigodomigod. This response was not in the original script, but as Poitier told Lesley Stahl of CBS, he insisted on it, even putting it into his contract. The movie’s most famous line, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” is the name of the sequel, which I never saw.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) – I’m almost positive I saw this in a cinema with my mother and sisters. With Spencer Tracy, in his last role; Katharine Hepburn; and her niece, Katharine Houghton. The ad copy said, “A love story of today.”
Sneakers (1992), which I saw only last year. He has the gravitas to be ex-CIA.

I’ve caught parts of movies in the 1970s in which Sidney both directed and acted: A Piece of the Action (1977), Let’s Do It Again (1975), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and Buck and the Preacher (1972). But my favorite film he directed is Stir Crazy (1980), with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Gee, I need to see Blackboard Jungle, Porgy and Bess, A Patch of Blue, and To Sir With Love, though I know the title song.

The tributes

Watch the Kennedy Center Honors segment honoring Sidney Poitier in 1995, especially the film within. I remember watching the Oscars in 2002 in real time. Denzel Washington, who had won an Academy Award for Training Day, raised “his statuette to salute Poitier, who had won an honorary Oscar for his achievements ‘as an artist and a human being’ earlier that evening. “‘I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,’ he said, speaking for many. ‘I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir—nothing I would rather do.'”

Parade has 20 of Sidney Poitier’s Best Quotes “Acting isn’t a game of ‘pretend.’ It’s an exercise in being real.” Check out some of the tributes to Sidney Poitier here and here.

From the Boston Globe: “For much of the 20th century, Black America reserved a special term for its most esteemed public figures. They were ‘race men.’ Sidney Poitier… may well have been the last. The concept no longer applies as it once did, in part because of how successful in the larger culture Poitier was.

“A race man wasn’t defined just by being someone famous and successful. He was also conscious of presenting himself as an exemplar of probity and dignity. More than a role model, a race man was a living, breathing assertion that America might someday live up to its ideals.”

The Measure Of A Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, read by the author, can presently be heard here.

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