“Virgil, that’s a funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?” the combustible police chief played marvellously by Rod Steiger asks Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs in the classic crime drama, In the Heat of the Night (1967). “They call me Mister Tibbs,” replies Virgil, very deliberately, proudly, even triumphantly with the voice barely containing the righteous anger of a proud and honourable man. The superhuman struggle to keep his temper and dignity is apparent in his face, his burning eyes and the movement of his mouth as he utters those words. That famous scene not just encapsulated the tone of the film, which tells the story of a black police officer investigating a murder in a predominantly white, racist town, but also the life and times of one of the greatest figures of popular cinema, a man who single-handedly changed the way white Hollywood perceived and used black artistes in the studios.
On January 6, with the passing of Sidney Poitier, the world of cinema lost one of its most iconic and influential actors. He was 94 and is survived by his wife, the actress Joanna Shimkus.
Poitier’s historical importance transcended the world of cinema and popular culture. He was more than just an Oscar-winning actor or a matinee idol, or even the first black superstar of motion pictures; he was the pioneer of a movement that changed the course of popular culture in the United States, a path-breaking artiste who liberated black people from racial typecasting in cinema and theatre, and a man who, by sheer dint of merit, paved the way for future generations of black artistes to achieve the stardom they deserved.
With the kind of films he chose to make and the way he interpreted his roles, Poitier was the first black artiste to subtly use the medium of cinema for his activism. Films such as The Defiant Ones (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir, With Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and Buck and the Preacher (1972) kept chipping away at social injustice and prejudices and gently nudged society in the direction of tolerance and integration. It was a deliberate choice to make such films, even though ‘race-neutral’ roles were coming his way. In an interview in 1967, he said: “It’s a choice, a clear choice. If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.” Poitier’s sense of responsibility would time and again prevail over his artistic urges. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he wrote later in his life.
Choosing the kind of films he wanted to make was not always easy for a black actor in Hollywood, however great his talent was, and Poitier was sometimes forced to make compromises with his personal preferences. To be able to do Stanley Kramer’s classic The Defiant Ones , the story of a black convict and a white convict chained together, trying to escape the law, Poitier reluctantly played the role of Porgy in Otto Preminger’s much-lauded Porgy and Bess (1959). Poitier, like his friend Harry Belafonte, the singing superstar who had earlier turned down an offer to play the part, felt the role was demeaning to black people. However, Samuel Goldwyn, the producer, who was one of the most powerful men in the industry, reportedly used his influence to arm-twist Poitier into accepting the film. Otherwise, he would not have been chosen for The Defiant Ones , a role that Poitier badly wanted.
Although The Defiant Ones remained one of Poitier’s most famous films, his participation in Porgy and Bess continued to sting him for a long time. “I have not completely forgiven myself [for doing the role],” he said in an interview years later.
Not all of Sidney Poitier’s roles in the 1950s and 1960s were powerful statements against racism. In fact in 1964, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the first black man to win in that category, for Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963), a ‘race-neutral’ film where the colour of the protagonist’s skin had no bearing on the story or narrative. The movie told the heart-warming story of an itinerant handyman, played by Poitier, who gets manipulated by a determined old German nun (played by Lilia Skala) into building a chapel in the middle of nowhere. Poitier, as the reluctant chapel-builder Homer Smith who finds himself getting inextricably trapped in Mother Maria’s plans, demonstrated that he was as adept in comedy as he was in dramatic roles.
It has been easy, even convenient, to bracket Poitier with movies associated with issues relating to race and prejudice—a subject Poitier himself appeared to encourage in his interviews and writings. However, of the 16 films he made against the backdrop of the tumultuous activism of the 1960s, half of them were pronouncedly ‘race-neutral’: Pressure Point (1962), Lilies of the Field (1963), The Long Ships (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Bedford Incident (1965), The Slender Thread (1965), Duel at Diablo (1966) and For Love of Ivy (1968). Yet, it can be argued that it was these ‘race-neutral’ films with Poitier in the starring role that had a far greater impact in changing Hollywood’s perception and presentation of the black man.
In the 1960s, Poitier was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood alongside Paul Newman, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Omar Sharif and others. In 1967 alone, he had three big hits in To Sir, With Love , In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner . All three were iconic films that not only established Poitier as a top box-office draw but also as a poster boy for the civil rights movement. In all three films, Poitier portrayed elegant, educated black men who were taking on the bigotry of the establishment not with violence or rage but with a quiet dignity that would put to shame the very society in which they were being persecuted.
From the role of Mark Thackeray, the dignified teacher earning the respect of an unruly class of students in a tough East London school in To Sir, With Love to the sophisticated Dr John Prentice meeting the parents of his white fiance for the first time in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner , Poitier was remaking the image of the black man in the white American psyche.
Sudipto Sanyal, a teacher of popular culture who has a doctorate in American Culture Studies, told Frontline : “Sidney Poitier embodied a genteel blackness, as opposed to the threat of violence and sexuality that white America has often ascribed to the male black body. But at the same time, the mere fact of his body looking larger on the screen, and on billboards, and his name with top billing, was a revolutionary image in the American consciousness.”
Poitier cut a magnificent image on screen. Standing nearly 6 feet 3 inches tall and arrestingly handsome, he moved with a kind of litheness, grace and power never before seen in cinema. Yet, even with that chiselled whipcord body, he hardly ever projected any kind of danger or intimidation. His characters were mostly non-confrontational, preferring to avoid violence or trouble, but his fearless eyes clearly sent across the message that if forced to act, he was quite capable of looking after himself.
Sanyal said: “Poitier holding the white mob off with just a stick in his hand in In The Heat of the Night is an important milestone in black representation, and makes possible black power revenge fantasies of the 1970s, like Gordon Parks’ Shaft (1971) and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). In fact, Poitier, in spite of being often perceived as the ‘acceptable’ black man in a white-majority scenario, was instrumental in paving the way for the blaxploitation genre that was sparked off in an America that was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1967.”
Often, Poitier’s image of urbane sophistication, thanks to his roles as doctors, teachers, police officers, and so on, overshadowed his remarkable versatility and the vast range of roles he could play, including a rough-hewn escaped convict ( The Defiant Ones ), a soldier ( All the Young Men ), a jazz saxophone player ( Paris Blues ), an Islamic ruler in the Viking period drama TheLong Ships , and a deadly but honourable gunslinger in the western Duel at Diablo (1966). From biblical period pieces such as The Greatest Story Ever Told to westerns such as Buck and the Preacher to crime drama to historical biographies such as Mandela and de Klerk (1997) to comedies, many of which he himself directed, like Uptown Saturday Night (1974) and Stir Crazy (1980), there was hardly a genre of cinema that Poitier did not try out.
In the later part of his career, he was even in some top-grossing action thrillers like Deadly Pursuit (1988), co-starring Tom Berenger, and Sneakers (1992), with an all-star cast that included Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley and River Phoenix. Poitier also directed nine movies, mostly comedies, in which he had collaborated with stars such as Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Although most of his directorial efforts were panned by critics, they nevertheless did well at the box office.
As an actor, he had won universal acclaim both on stage and on the screen, and as a young artiste, Poitier held his own when pitted against veterans and established stars of the industry, be it Glen Ford ( Blackboard Jungle , 1955), Tony Curtis ( The Defiant Ones ), Paul Newman ( Paris Blues ) or the formidable pair of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn ( Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ).
However, his early training in the stage had made his acting method a little more theatrical than some of his great co-actors like Rod Steiger or Richard Widmark, who were quintessential screen actors; yet, like all great craftsmen, he could pull it off with panache, aided, of course, by a tremendous screen presence. When Poitier was on the screen, everything else seemed to fade into the background; so magnetic was his star appeal.
The road to success and stardom is often not a smooth one, and for an impoverished black boy growing up in segregated America, life was particularly hard. Born on February 20, 1927, Poitier spent his early childhood in the Bahamas in abject poverty. He was the youngest of nine children, and his parents were impoverished tomato farmers. After he repeatedly got into trouble, his parents sent him to live with an elder brother in Miami when he was 14. It was in the U.S. that the impressionable young Poitier had to face the cruel horror of racial segregation—a situation he later likened to a “barbed wire” on which he kept “lacerating” himself.
After running away and living for a while in New York, Poitier joined the army in 1943; he was just 16 at that time and had lied about his age to get enlisted. Two years later, he managed to get a discharge and set his sights on being an actor. Never having completed his education, Poitier taught himself to speak without the Caribbean accent of his childhood by listening to the radio and learnt to read with fluency. He managed to secure a place in the acting school of the American Negro Theatre in exchange for janitorial work without pay and got his first part in 1946 in an all-black production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata . Bit parts on stage and in television followed, but Poitier still had to find work outside acting to survive.
His first proper break came in 1955 with Blackboard Jungle , where he played George Miller, a talented but rebellious high school student, opposite Glenn Ford’s idealistic teacher. But it was three years later with The Defiant Ones that Poitier announced his arrival as a major new force in Hollywood.
In 1959, he appeared on Broadway playing Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun , to huge critical acclaim. Two years later, he would reprise that role on screen. In the 1960s, with a string of great performances, he had established himself as one of the most bankable stars in the industry, had won an Oscar, and had thrown himself at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
The 1970s saw Poitier find success as a director as well, with hit films like the mostly black western Buck and the Preacher and comedies, including Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do it Again (1975). In 1980, he directed Stir Crazy , which at that time was the highest grossing film directed by a black film-maker. Although he made two more films, Hanky Panky (1982) and Fast Forward (1985), in which he did not act, for most of the 1980s, Poitier had dropped out of the scene. In 1988, he returned to the screen with the hit action thriller Deadly Pursuit , proving that his star power had not waned despite a 11-year absence from acting.
In the 1990s, Poitier appeared mainly in TV movies and television miniseries, most notably in the TV miniseries Separate but Equal , which also had fellow screen legend Burt Lancaster, and gave a much-acclaimed performance as Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela and de Klerk (1997).
In 2002, the year Denzel Washington became the second black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, 38 years after Poitier won his, Poitier was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars ceremony.
In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from U.S. President Barack Obama, who said: “It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones—milestones of artistic excellence, milestones of America’s progress…. Poitier not only entertained, but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”