For postwar America, Sidney Poitier turned one thing just like the Black Cary Grant: a strikingly good-looking and well-spoken Bahamian-American actor. He was a pure movie star who projected ardour, but tempered by a form of refinement and restraint that white moviegoers discovered very reassuring. Poitier was sleek, manly, self-possessed, with an innate dignity and an amazing display screen presence. He additionally had a lovely, melodious voice – the results of his childhood spent within the Bahamas, after which struggling early years in New York, attempting to make it as an actor and privately learning the voices of mellifluous white radio announcers. He was a standard, classical actor in some ways, following within the footsteps of Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, however eminently castable in a brand new technology of recent roles.
Nearly all his well-known film roles are outlined by race and racial distinction, significantly that extraordinary trio of flicks that got here out in a single yr, 1967. In To Sir With Love, he was the visiting Black trainer in swinging London who will get via to the youngsters by difficult them to be adults. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner he’s the Black man who desires to marry a younger white lady, in an America the place this was nonetheless unlawful in lots of southern states. (This proposal causes excruciating discomfiture in his fiancee’s liberal dad and mom, performed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.) And in In the Heat of the Night he was the Black murder detective pressured to help a bigoted white cop, performed by Rod Steiger.
Poitier was all the time admired for his model and intelligence and an instinctive, classical approach. He was a category act. However because the 60s unfolded, in a brand new period of Black energy and radicalism, Poitier discovered himself very retro, derided as a pseudo-white sellout, the secure choice for a reactionary film business that may tolerate solely 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 complete interval of Sidney Poitier moviemaking stands for”. This new temper, and a sense that there have been no good roles for a middle-aged Black man, brought on Poitier to withdraw from performing, returning to lower-key character roles within the late 80s (together with, inevitably, a efficiency as Nelson Mandela in a TV film reverse Michael Caine as FW de Klerk). However he turned a well-regarded director, answerable for the massive industrial hit Stir Crazy, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. He additionally directed some films that includes Invoice Cosby, an expert affiliation for whose embarrassments he can hardly be blamed now.
Poitier’s breakthrough was No Way Out in 1950, a noir crime image directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, during which he’s the Black hospital physician who has to deal with a white racist hoodlum (a attribute flip from Richard Widmark). 5 years later, on the ripe previous age of 28, Poitier was forged as a troubled teen in Blackboard Jungle, the brow-furrowing “subject film,” about teenage delinquency and inner-city colleges – bookended later by his Black trainer in To Sir With Love. It was completely in step with his subsequent profession that he offered the frisson of blackness, however was additionally the dependable good man. Race was additionally a think about Edge of the City (1957), during which he performs an easygoing, assured dock employee who turns into a form of mentor determine to a troubled man on the run from the army police (a younger John Cassavetes). Poiter’s openness and smiling sympathy on this film confirmed him at his absolute best.
However it was in The Defiant Ones (1958) that he was extra uninhibited, because the Black prisoner shackled to Tony Curtis’s bigoted legal, making their escape collectively, realising they should work collectively and eventually turning into associates.
Then got here the film for which he turned the primary Black man to win the perfect actor Oscar: Lilies of the Field (1964), a daily joe who finds himself bamboozled into doing guide labour for some expatriate German nuns, lastly constructing their chapel, and attaining a mysterious if sentimental form of redemption for him and them. It’s a film with gentleness and appeal – and it isn’t clearly about race. Three years later got here that annus mirabilis during which his massive three movies got here out – after which the disaffection set in.
Wanting again, a few of Poitier’s performances do appear a bit tame, and the truth that for therefore lengthy he appeared to be Hollywood’s sole Black actor left him uncovered. He was wounded by the Clifford Mason article and nonetheless extra upset by the 1990 stage play Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, primarily based on the true story of a younger Black con man who tricked his method into the flats and lives of wealthy white individuals by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Some critics discovered on this a depraved parable for the best way Poitier himself had been permitted to turn into a home visitor within the white world of American tradition.
There isn’t any doubt that he could possibly be a little bit over-controlling in his alternative of roles. Bafflingly, he refused to play Othello – a task during which he would absolutely have been super – due to the damaging picture of Black individuals it promoted, preferring initiatives resembling his sonorous LP recording of readings from Plato.
However within the twenty first century, Poitier’s achievements have been reassessed. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was, in any case, about interracial marriage and intercourse – a topic from which fashionable Hollywood now runs a mile. Poitier tackled it with dignity and candour. If he was upscale and aspirational, so what? That was actuality; he linked with one thing that white Hollywood not often acknowledged: the huge swath of Black America’s upwardly cell educated class, individuals who would all the time face insidious prejudice and condescension.
Poitier created an area for African American performing that made doable the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, and plenty of extra. The richness, energy and immediacy of his performances in Fringe of the Metropolis, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Within the Warmth of the Evening make him a display screen pioneer and a Hollywood legend.