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480 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 20 illus., append., notes, bibl., index

$29.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2843-2

Published: Spring 2004

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Sidney Poitier
Man, Actor, Icon

by Aram Goudsouzian

Copyright (c) 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Introduction

If Sidney Poitier had an acting trademark, it was the cool boil. In the movies, when injustice drove him to the brink, he became a pot of outrage on the verge of bubbling over. His eyes would blaze. His mahogany skin would tighten. His words would gush out in spasms of angry eloquence, carefully measured by grim, simmering pauses.

But the powder keg never exploded. It could not explode. For over a decade, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Poitier was Hollywood's lone icon of racial enlightenment; no other black actor consistently won leading roles in major motion pictures. His on-screen actions thus bore a unique political symbolism. The cool boil struck a delicate balance, revealing racial frustration, but tacitly assuring a predominantly white audience that blacks would eschew violence and preserve social order.

On 22 August 1967, life imitated art. During a televised press conference in Atlanta, reporters peppered Poitier with questions about urban riots and black radicals. Race riots had ravaged Newark and Detroit during a summer that had also seen race-related civil disorders in a spate of other cities. For five minutes, Poitier answered the questions. Then came the reined-in rage. "It seems to me that at this moment, this day, you could ask me about many positive things that are happening in this country," he lectured. Instead, the reporters fixated on a narrow segment of the black population. The movie star admonished their tendency "to pay court to sensationalism, to pay court to negativism."

Poitier further objected that the media had crowned him a spokesman for all black America. With controlled fury, he refused to be defined only by his skin color. "There are many aspects of my personality that you can explore very constructively," he seethed. "But you sit here and ask me such one-dimensional questions about a very tiny area of our lives. You ask me questions that fall continually within the Negroness of my life." He demanded recognition of his humanity: "I am artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due." His soliloquy won applause from the abashed reporters, who then confined their questions to the actor's career.[1]

Yet Poitier recognized his symbolic power, and he accepted political responsibility. One week before, also in Atlanta, he had delivered the keynote address at the tenth annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights organization led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The struggle for black equality had by then reached a crossroads. A decade of nonviolent demonstrations had won basic constitutional rights for black southerners, but had achieved little for the northern ghettos that burst into violence that summer. Moreover, a new generation of leaders now challenged King's core message of nonviolence and integration. That month H. Rap Brown, president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had told 300 young blacks in Maryland to fight white racism with eye-for-an-eye violence. "Don't love him to death," he implored. "Shoot him to death." His rhetoric ignited a riot. In this volatile atmosphere, SCLC needed to maintain relevance. The Atlanta summit's theme was "Where Do We Go from Here?"[2]

Before 2,000 delegates at the opening banquet, King introduced his "soul brother." Then Poitier orated—celebrating the huge majority of peaceful blacks, condemning the "turmoil and chaos" that ruled politics, praising King as "a new man in an old world." When Poitier declared his continued devotion to civil rights, many delegates wept. Like King, who promoted economic boycotts as alternatives to riots, Poitier maintained faith in peaceful protest and interracial brotherhood.[3]

The civil rights movement had shaped the contours of Poitier's career. Nonviolent demonstrations for black equality had forged a culture in which his image resonated, and his movies had engendered racial goodwill. So Poitier shouldered political burdens unusual to movie stars. But then, as the press conference had indicated, he was an unusual movie star. Poitier said it best: "I am artist, man, American, contemporary."

Artist. Poitier was an actor of prodigious talent. Stanley Kramer once called him "the only actor I've ever worked with who has the range of Marlon Brando—from pathos to great power." Poitier infused grace and dignity into his characters, and he exuded a warm charisma. More, he possessed that indefinable quality of the movie star—an aura, a presence that dominated the screen. That Hollywood chose Poitier as its single black star was no whim; it was due, in large part, to his exceptional magnetism.[4]

Man. He was a fascinating man, at that, with a literally rags-to-riches story. Among family in the Bahamas and alone in New York City, Poitier grew up poor. Poverty shaped him, hovered near him long after his ascent to riches. This daydreaming dishwasher lived the great American myth of the self-made man, stumbling into a vocation and then applying himself with diligence. With fame came the burden of representing an entire race. It gnawed at him, even as he shone with urbane polish. He never stopped sizing himself by his parents. Through two wives, six daughters, and one tempestuous affair, he learned and taught his father's lessons about "the measure of a man."[5]

American. 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.[6]

Contemporary. This final self-characterization might have drawn objections, because by 1967 many radicals, college students, and film critics were condemning Poitier's recurring role as a noble hero in a white world. Like other Hollywood stars, Poitier established an enduring image. Unlike other stars, his image changed meaning with the shifts in racial politics. He had always faced unique obstacles. Racial taboos precluded him from romantic roles. His pattern of sacrifice for his white co-star rankled many blacks. And his characters often seemed stripped of any black identity, instead promoting an exaggerated colorblindness. Yet his roles challenged convention enough that until the mid-1960s, few Poitier films played in the Deep South. So Poitier confronted difficult choices. As the single black film star, he had to balance mass appeal and political viability, an equilibrium difficult to maintain by the time of his anguished press conference.[7]

Poitier stewed that day because the public could not separate the image from the man, and the man from his race. Yet his stardom had depended on the blurred line between entertainment and reality, on the public's willingness to understand race relations through the prism of the movies. After all, everyone accepted that a movie star could deliver the keynote address for a political organization such as SCLC.[8]

Poitier, moreover, was at the top of his game. In August 1967 Poitier lived in a sumptuous Upper West Side penthouse, owned an Oscar, enjoyed the adoration of millions, and had two films—In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love—climbing atop the box-office charts. A third film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, would buttress his brief reign as America's top movie star. That year Poitier soothed a liberal political center that seemed to be crumbling in the face of urban riots and black militancy. But with popular success came the disenchantment of critics and radicals. In the same month that Variety dubbed him "The Useful Negro," a New York Times column called him a "showcase nigger." Poitier could not escape the paradox of his "Negroness."[9]

"How does it feel to be a problem?" asked W. E. B. Du Bois at the beginning of the twentieth century. That question articulated the frustration smoldering within Poitier at the press conference. Du Bois wrote of "double-consciousness," the African American's warring ideals of black identity and national assimilation. Poitier complicated the problem—as a man, as a public spokesman, and as a screen image that he could not entirely control. He endured teenage years of isolation and adult years in a withering public eye. He had to maintain progressive depictions of blacks while appealing to interracial audiences. He weathered the insults of racists and radicals, Cold War conservatives and Black Power militants. And he wrestled with his own demons, his own quest for manhood. His struggle was rooted in his balance of identity between the Bahamas, the land that instilled him with his values, and the United States, the nation whose racial dilemma he represented on movie screens.[10]

How does it feel to be a problem? Few lived that question, in all its complexities, as Sidney Poitier did.


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