Sidney Poitier and the Standards Against Which We Measure Artists
It is testimony to Sidney Poitier’s extraordinary legacy that even on the rare occasions he was criticized, it was for what he wasn’t.
Much more impressive in the rich life of Poitier, who died Wednesday at the age of 94, were all the things he was, like the actor most responsible for proving to Hollywood that a talented performer of color could sell just as many movie tickets and popcorn combos as any other talented performer.
Perhaps the 20th century figure to whom Poitier best compares is Jackie Robinson, who showed baseball the folly of a color line. It’s not a precise comparison, because unlike Major League Baseball, Hollywood had been employing talented black actors for decades. It had just cast them in a narrow range of safe roles, like singing and dancing, largely out of fear that a movie might offend some of its potential white audience if a black character didn’t know his place.
Sidney Poitier started challenging those unwritten strictures in his first major movie, Blackboard Jungle.
Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, was promoted as cheap thrills, a “shocking expose” on the menace of juvenile delinquency. It’s still best known in some circles for turning Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” into a breakthrough rock ’n’ roll hit. But it also gave us Poitier’s Gregory W. Miller, a complex high school student perceptive beyond his nominal years.
Miller attended a trade school that primarily served as the last stop for incorrigible delinquents who had to be deposited somewhere. He had watched every teacher’s idealism flicker and die, so he had no expectations about the newest arrival, Glenn Ford’s Richard Dadier.
Miller greeted Dadier with a subtle and rather clever taunt, addressing him as “Chief” until Dadier was forced to snap that this was annoying.
Despite having been dumped in this dead-end school, however, Miller did not see himself headed for nowhere. Unlike some of his fellow students, he wasn’t just lashing out at a world that seemed to have no place for him. When he sensed that Dadier genuinely cared, he became an ally — subtly, so the other students understood why.
In a movie widely seen as a warning that decent Americans needed to protect themselves against people who weren’t fit to be part of their society, Gregory W. Miller turned out to have the same hopes, dreams and decency.
Over the next decade Sidney Poitier’s characters sent a similar message in more polished and acclaimed movies. When the exploding civil rights movement spurred even some sympathetic white folks to quietly wonder “what do ‘they’ really want,” Poitier’s Homer Smith in Lilies of the Field, Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love, Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night and Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner all had the same reassuring answer: “They” want exactly what all people want. They want a peaceful life that includes respectful relationships, equal opportunity and a shared code of civility.
Not by coincidence, the 1960s were the years when Sidney Poitier became a movie star, like John Wayne or Paul Newman, and movie star then was pretty much the peak of the performer celebrity world.
It also made you a target.
Few if any questioned Poitier’s skill. His off-screen life offered no scandals. What came into question at times were the roles he took. In their quest for common ground, did his characters compromise their principles? In their unspoken quest to reassure audiences, did they suppress their flaws or their natural human desires?
Poitier took these questions seriously. He noted that Virgil Tibbs and Dr. John Prentice — or a dozen of his other characters, including Walter Lee Younger from A Raisin in the Sun — had dealt with real-life bedrock issues like discrimination and disrespect. Their responses were complex and not always neatly resolved.
Like Jackie Robinson, who was challenged about whether he reacted too passively to the racism he encountered in baseball, Poitier basically said he had taken the best available path. He could not be both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. No one could. What he could do was help dramatize and humanize long-embedded problems through engaging stories.
Poitier’s comments later in his life suggested he didn’t consider his messages definitive or perfect. He expressed no regret about any part he played in making races feel a little more harmonious toward each other.
For a guy who lost jobs early in his career because he couldn’t sing, call that a good irony.
It’s also good in the wake of his death to hear that even those who criticized some of Sidney Poitier’s work for what he wasn’t share the virtually unanimous thanks and appreciation for what he was.