Sidney Poitier was as much a trailblazer for black actors in Hollywood as Jackie Robinson was for black athletes in baseball. I fear, however, that his memory will not be burnished and maintained as Robinson’s has. That will be an injustice. Ethics Alarms, as regular readers here know, is dedicated to the duty to remember, for remembrance is crucial to maintaining our culture and values.
Poitier was already fading from our cultural memory before he died, which he did today at the age of 94. He had only been intermittently active since the Seventies; his last major role in a film was in “Sneakers,” in 1992, and he only made two movies in the Eighties. Yet Poitier, almost single handed, demolished the cultural stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood of blacks as under-educated, poor, inarticulate athletes, musicians, lackeys, clowns or criminals. Doing so took persistence, courage, determination, sacrifice, and, obviously some impressive gifts. He was startlingly handsome, physically imposing, had a wonderful voice and projected strength, likeability and intelligence.
Sidney Poitier was the first black movie star rather than an actor, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Movie stars make roles fit their particular personality and assets; actors make themselves fit their characters. Many movie stars construct their entire careers around developing an archetype, an American icon that represents a particular breed who has lessons to teach, because he or she has learned them well. Poitier was one of these, and his type was the black man who is as good or better than any white man he encounters, particularly the ones who denigrate or underestimate him.
Movie stars are remembered primarily because of their movies; if they don’t have a classic on their resume, they risk being forgotten no matter how great they were, or how popular they were in their primes. I worry about Poitier in this regard. He didn’t make many outstanding films. He won’t have the reputation of being versatile, because he insisted on only playing admirable men, while refusing to indulge in stereotypes. I suspect future generations will compare him unfavorably to Denzel Washington, for example, who has portrayed villains, antiheroes, narcissists, deeply flawed men and even an Asperger’s sufferer. Yet if it hadn’t been for Poitier proving that a black man could be a protagonist in a white man’s industry, Denzel wouldn’t have had the opportunity to stretch himself. Neither would Will Smith, Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne or James Earl Jones.
In 1967, Sidney Poitier had one of the most memorable years any leading actor has ever had. In “The Heat of the Night,” he starred as a black urban cop forced to work on a murder case with a bigoted Mississippi sheriff; in “To Sir, With Love,” he was a black American teacher trying to win the trust of his all-white students in a lower-class urban British high school, and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” he was the surprise fiancé the daughter of smug middle class liberals brings home, setting off a test of abstract principles clashing with reality. Of the three, only the first holds up well today, though Poitier is excellent in them all, and that film is dominated by the performance of Rod Steiger as the sheriff. Still, it contains Poitier’s most famous moment in any of his films, when Steiger sneeringly asks, having learned Poitier’s police detective is named Virgil, “That’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?,” and Poitier answers with a ringing “They call me Mister Tibbs!” That encapsulated perfectly the proud defiance he embodied throughout his career.
Good work, Mister Poitier.