Fighting Prejudice with Sidney Poitier

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2013 has quietly developed into a groundbreaking year for black actors and directors. Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE starring Chiwetal Ejiofor, Ryan Coogler’s FRUITVALE STATION starring Michael B. Jordan and Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER starring Forest Whitaker are all possible Oscar contenders for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor and Idris Elba’s performance in MANDELA: A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM has also garnered considerable critical attention in recent months. These talented individuals may end up making history at the 86th Academy Awards ceremony next year if they receive the award nominations many claim they deserve. And while I don’t think you can measure a film’s value by the awards it receives it would be naïve to assume that those gold statues and the publicity they generate don’t hold any weight. In Hollywood winning an Oscar can open doors and close deals. The attention they procure can introduce you and your work to vast communities of people who may have never taken notice or been exposed to it before. Despite its fluctuating ratings, the Academy Awards is the most watched award show in the world and that kind of exposure makes Oscar gold invaluable. And few people understand the value of Oscar gold as well as Sidney Poitier.

When Poitier took home the Oscar for Best Actor in April of 1964 it was more than just a reward for his fine acting in LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963). It was the first time that the prestigious award had been given to a black man and it signaled an unstoppable sea-change that was happening in Hollywood and across the country in regards to racial inequality and long standing prejudices. As Aram Goudsouzian poignantly points out in his biography of the actor (Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon):

“In an era when blacks demonstrated for rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, Poitier was popular culture’s foremost symbol of racial democracy. Before his 1950 film debut, images of blacks in film consisted of the stereotypes that justified racial segregation: oversexed bucks, absurd pickaninnies, beefy mammies, grinning song-and-dance men, and slothful comic servants. Poitier’s image contradicted this burden. By the late 1950s, he was the Martin Luther King of the movies, an emblem of middle-class values, Christian sacrifice, and racial integration. Like college students staging sit-ins at lunch counters, like marchers weathering blasts from fire hoses, like civil rights leaders employing patriotic rhetoric, Poitier generated sympathy for black equality. In 1964, the year that King won the Nobel Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Poitier won an Academy Award for Lilies of the Field, cementing his position as the film industry’s token response to the civil rights movement.”

sp02These days it’s much too easy to take Poitier’s screen persona for granted but throughout the sixties the tall, extremely handsome and immensely talented actor was a powerful symbol of social change. While it might be easy for some to diminish his accomplishments as “the film industry’s token for the civil rights movement,” Poitier presented the image of a well-dressed, thoughtful, outspoken and sensitive black man to a generation of film viewers who desperately needed a remedy to counteract all the racist imagery and prejudice that had been perpetuated by Hollywood for decades.

To his credit, Poitier is able to effortlessly command attention and you want to follow him wherever he takes you. His quiet smoldering intensity on screen is more exhilarating than threatening and you eagerly await the moment when he’ll eventually explode and bring down a fiery storm of intelligent discourse and righteous anger on one of his unsuspecting costars. I write this as an unabashed fan but Poitier has had plenty of detractors throughout his career. The actor endured pointed criticism from racists as well as radicals in the sixties who thought he was perpetuating his own myths on screen. His critics often complained that he didn’t fully represent the scope and complexity of the black experience in America but I think that’s an impossible burden to place on any actor. Today we can still debate how little or how far we’ve come in regards to the various ways in which race is depicted in film but Poitier’s impressive career remains an important Hollywood milestone and a continual source of inspiration.

Tonight Sidney Poitier’s powerful presence will dominate TCM where you can see the actor in three of his most successful films; THE DEFIANT ONES (1956), A RAISIN IN THE SUN (1960) and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). They are part of a series TCM has titled “Fighting Prejudice” which highlights a selection of classic movies that explore racial prejudice in creative and often surprisingly smart ways. Poitier didn’t win an Oscar for any of the aforementioned films but he delivers some remarkable performances in all of them that often exceed his Oscar winning role in LILIES OF THE FIELD.

Further Reading:
- Four Black Actors Vie for the Best Actor Oscar by Chaz Ebert
- Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon – An Introduction by Aram Goudsouzian
- Sidney Poitier and The Civil Rights Movement in Hollywood by Margaret Perry

12 Responses Fighting Prejudice with Sidney Poitier
Posted By david hartzog : December 5, 2013 7:29 pm

Great actor, Dual at Diablo and Heat of the Night are personal favorites.

Posted By Mike D : December 5, 2013 9:49 pm

Nothing against Sidney Poitier, but I always thought James Edwards gets shafted in these discussions. Just look at the quote from Aram Goudsouzian.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 5, 2013 10:24 pm

David – I’m a big DUEL AT DIABLO fan myself. Great western with one of the first black heroes.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 5, 2013 10:29 pm

Mike – You could make the case for a small number of black American actors who didn’t fit the mold that Aram Goudsouzian describes and film studios perpetuated but nitpicking the details seems pointless. No black actor had previously held the kind of star power Poitier had. He was a game changer.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : December 6, 2013 12:47 am

this is thorny subject i know,although i can see some merit in performers like Mantan Moreland,his roles were limited by the prevailing attitudes of the time,Poitier was a game changer because social attitudes changed,but i think the pendulum swings both ways,it’s preposterous to denigrate a previous generation based on current perceptions,Goudsouzian does that …how does his description of Poitier compared to “oversexed bucks, absurd pickaninnies, beefy mammies, grinning song-and-dance men, and slothful comic servants” add anything but breathless hyperbole to the conversation?

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : December 6, 2013 3:18 am

DevlinCarnate – I don’t personally see anything hyperbolic about Goudsouzian’s quote and history unfortunately supports his claims. Social attitudes changed thanks to people like Poitier who helped transform general attitudes about race. But I don’t buy into the idea that entire “generations” behave in a particular way or that they’re denigrated by pointing a critical finger at their failures and mistakes.

Posted By Arthur : December 6, 2013 6:30 am

Juano Hernandez in Intruder in the Dust defied the stereotypes as did William Marshall in Demetrius and the Gladiators. . . Yes, I always waited for the point when he would erupt. Steiger and Burton would also erupt in most of their films. . . I agree with everything in this essay especially the last sentence. Poitier was much better in Raisin in the Sun and the Defiant Ones but he got it for Lillies of the Field in which he basically portrayed a glorified servant. Note, Morgan Freeman won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy and Viola Davis won it for playing a servant in The Help. I see that two Black actors are up for the academy award currently one for playing a butler another for playing a slave. Just pointing a “critical finger” at this ongoing trend.

Posted By Brenda Tremain : December 6, 2013 3:20 pm

I would love to see Cry, the Beloved Country this weekend, with the death of Nelson Mandela. The book is so touching and demonstrates the impact of apartheid on two families. Haven’t been able to see the movie but I think TCM has showed it in the past.

Posted By Gayle : December 6, 2013 6:59 pm

Actually, Octavia Spencer on the Oscar for The Help but Viola Davis is certainly overdue. Keep in mind first African American Oscar recipient Hattie McDaniel’s comment that playing a maid in a movie was better than having to be one! At the time of The Help, I was dismayed by the Tavis Smiley talk show episode in which he took Viola Davis to task for portraying a servant. She held her own in noting that there was nothing wrong in playing a character that helped point out the past. Also, while Denzel Washington won his first Oscar in a portrayal of a former slave (Glory), his subsequent win for Training Day was a character no ethnic group would be proud of. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Jamie Foxx won their Oscars playing dynamic individuals. Foxx’s win for playing Ray Charles follows the Oscar trope of awarding actors for roles in which the character has some physical challenge!

Posted By kingrat : December 6, 2013 9:32 pm

Brenda, CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY is an excellent film, very well directed by Zoltan Korda, with some on-location photography in South Africa. TCM has shown it, though not often. Poitier doesn’t have a major role, but as usual he is very good.

Poitier fans also need to see SOMETHING OF VALUE, about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Poitier and Rock Hudson have been friends when they were too young for the racial difference to matter, but they are forced to take different paths. A PATCH OF BLUE features the sensitive side of Poitier; this film is much better than I expected, with the minimum of sentimentality and liberal preaching.

The bitterly ironic aspect of Poitier’s career is that after the breakthrough year of 1967 when he had three huge hits and was the top box office star, the post-studio era didn’t know how to continue him as an A List star.

Posted By Arthur : December 7, 2013 6:21 pm

The fact that the civil rights movement had already reached its high water mark may also have contributed to Poitier’s star fading. . . He had an interesting role in Band of Angels in 1957 with Clark Gable doing a lower budget, but more realistic, remake of Gone With the Wind. . . The Help gave a somewhat misleading picture of the past. There was no prominent white woman in Jackson Mississippi society, that I know of, who took up the cause of integration. . . Hattie McDaniel was not allowed to sit and eat in the banquet hall with the Hollywood elite when she won the Oscar. Openly weeping, she uttered the final words of her acceptance speech, which had been written for her by the Hollywood brass, “I just hope I can be a credit to my race!” She then dashed off the stage and out of the hall into the night.

Posted By robbushblog : December 10, 2013 9:02 pm

Not only did Viola Davis not win an Oscar for The Help (Though she should have), Morgan Freeman did not win an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy. Daniel Day-Lewis won that year for My Left Foot. Also, the Oscar ballots have not even been sent out yet, so no one has been nominated for anything yet. As Kimberly said, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Forrest Whitaker (a previous Oscar winner for playing someone not servile to anyone), are possible contenders come Oscar time.

Lilies of the Field is a great movie. I feel it is rather lightweight though, and Poitier is basically playing a light comic role. Though he was working for the nuns, I did not find his character “servile” in any way. He was there of his own accord. His part in In the Heat of the Night was much more showy.

I will end with this question: Did any film actor ever have a better year than Sidney Poitier did in 1967?

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