For postwar America, Sidney Poitier became something like the Black Cary Grant: a strikingly handsome and well-spoken Bahamian-American actor. He was a natural film star who projected passion, yet tempered by a kind of refinement and restraint that white moviegoers found very reassuring. Poitier was graceful, manly, self-possessed, with an innate dignity and a tremendous screen presence. He also had a beautiful, melodious voice – the result of his childhood spent in the Bahamas, and then struggling early years in New York, trying to make it as an actor and privately studying the voices of mellifluous white radio announcers. He was a traditional, classical actor in many ways, following in the footsteps of Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, but eminently castable in a new generation of modern roles.
Almost all his famous movie roles are defined by race and racial difference, particularly that extraordinary trio of movies that came out in one year, 1967. In To Sir With Love, he was the visiting Black teacher in swinging London who gets through to the kids by challenging them to be adults. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he is the Black man who wants to marry a young white woman, in an America where this was still illegal in many southern states. (This proposal causes excruciating discomfiture in his fiancee’s liberal parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.) And in In the Heat of the Night he was the Black homicide detective forced to assist a bigoted white cop, played by Rod Steiger.
Poitier was always admired for his style and intelligence and an instinctive, classical technique. He was a class act. But as the 60s unfolded, in a new era of Black power and radicalism, Poitier found himself very unfashionable, derided as a pseudo-white sellout, the safe option for a reactionary movie industry that would tolerate only this prettily spoken Uncle Tom. The Black dramatist Clifford Mason wrote a New York Times article furiously denouncing Poitier, claiming that “artistical NAACPism is all that this whole period of Sidney Poitier moviemaking stands for”. This new mood, and a feeling that there were no good roles for a middle-aged Black man, caused Poitier to withdraw from acting, returning to lower-key character roles in the late 80s (including, inevitably, a performance as Nelson Mandela in a TV movie opposite Michael Caine as FW de Klerk). But he became a well-regarded director, in charge of the huge commercial hit Stir Crazy, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. He also directed some movies featuring Bill Cosby, a professional association for whose embarrassments he can hardly be blamed now.
Poitier’s breakthrough was No Way Out in 1950, a noir crime picture directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, in which he is the Black hospital doctor who has to treat a white racist hoodlum (a characteristic turn from Richard Widmark). Five years later, at the ripe old age of 28, Poitier was cast as a troubled teen in Blackboard Jungle, the brow-furrowing “issue movie,” about teenage delinquency and inner-city schools – bookended later by his Black teacher in To Sir With Love. It was entirely in line with his subsequent career that he provided the frisson of blackness, but was also the reliable good guy. Race was also a factor in Edge of the City (1957), in which he plays an easygoing, confident dock worker who becomes a kind of mentor figure to a troubled guy on the run from the military police (a young John Cassavetes). Poiter’s openness and smiling sympathy in this movie showed him at his very best.
But it was in The Defiant Ones (1958) that he was more uninhibited, as the Black prisoner shackled to Tony Curtis’s bigoted criminal, making their escape together, realising they have to work together and finally becoming friends.
Then came the movie for which he became the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar: Lilies of the Field (1964), a regular joe who finds himself bamboozled into doing manual labour for some expatriate German nuns, finally building their chapel, and achieving a mysterious if sentimental kind of redemption for him and them. It’s a movie with gentleness and charm – and it isn’t obviously about race. Three years later came that annus mirabilis in which his big three films came out – and then the disaffection set in.
Looking back, some of Poitier’s performances do seem a bit tame, and the fact that for so long he seemed to be Hollywood’s sole Black actor left him exposed. He was wounded by the Clifford Mason article and still more upset by the 1990 stage play Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, based on the true story of a young Black con man who tricked his way into the apartments and lives of rich white people by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Some critics found in this a wicked parable for the way Poitier himself had been permitted to become a house guest in the white world of American culture.
There is no doubt that he could be a little over-controlling in his choice of roles. Bafflingly, he refused to play Othello – a role in which he would surely have been tremendous – because of the negative image of Black people it promoted, preferring projects such as his sonorous LP recording of readings from Plato.
But in the 21st century, Poitier’s achievements have been reassessed. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was, after all, about interracial marriage and sex – a subject from which modern Hollywood now runs a mile. Poitier tackled it with dignity and candour. If he was upscale and aspirational, so what? That was reality; he connected with something that white Hollywood rarely acknowledged: the vast swath of Black America’s upwardly mobile educated class, people who would always face insidious prejudice and condescension.
Poitier created a space for African American acting that made possible the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, and many more. The richness, strength and immediacy of his performances in Edge of the City, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night make him a screen pioneer and a Hollywood legend.