Farewell Sir Sidney: A born actor who was a quiet icon beyond stage and screen

Poitier, who passed away at 94, became renowned thanks to trinity of films characterized by ethnicity, ethnic discrimination

Sidney Poitier was a bit of an African-American Henry Fonda: an exceptionally good-looking and articulate Bahamian-American movie star.

He was a born star who oozed sentiment, though moderated by a type of sophistication and that white audiences found really soothing. Poitier was dignified, masculine, assured with an inborn grace and an amazing screen appearance. He also possessed a lovely, sweet voice – as a consequence of being raised in the Bahamas as a child, and very difficult initial years in New York, attempting to break as an actor and observing the voices of lyrical white radio broadcasters on his own. He was a customary, not very modern actor in a lot of ways, with Paul Robeson and Canada Lee as his predecessors, but very much able to act in a new generation of contemporary roles as per the demand.

Virtually every one of his known acts are characterized by ethnicity and ethnic discrimination, especially that remarkable trinity of films that were released in a single year, 1967. He was the guest African-American educator in rollicking London who engages the children by daring them to be adults in ‘To Sir With Love’. He starred as an African-American male in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, desiring to wed a young white girl in a country where doing so was still prohibited in quite a few southern states. (This match results in torturous discomfort in his partner’s open-minded parents acted out by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). Then he was cast as an Afro-American sleuth compelled to be the deputy of a racist white policeman, acted by Rod Steiger in ‘Heat of the Night’.

Poitier was forever preferred for his gusto and sharpness and an unfeigned method. He was a classic. However with the emergence of the 1960s, in a novel period of civil rights and rebellion, Poitier became passé, ridiculed as a half-black Uncle Tom, an unproblematic choice for a bigoted movie business, which would bear only this glib-talking sellout.

The African-American playwright Clifford Mason published an essay in the New York Times severely rebuking Poitier. This novel disposition, and a vibe that there were no appropriate acting opportunities for African-American men approaching their 50s, resulted in Poitier taking a step back from movies, going back to less visible acts towards the end of the 80s (acting as Nelson Mandela in a film made for TV against Michael Caine as FW de Klerk was a part of this). However he morphed into a highly-valued filmmaker, directing the commercial blockbuster ‘Stir Crazy’ starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. He also made a few films starring Bill Cosby, a work connection for whose abashment he could not possibly be faulted for.

Poitier’s career-boosting performance was ‘No Way Out’ in 1950, a film noir under the charge of Joseph Mankiewicz, in which he portrayed an African-American doctor who had to look after a white supremacist thug.

After five years, at the really old age of 28, Poitier played a difficult teenager in ‘Blackboard Jungle’, the brow-creasing ‘social problem’ movie about teen dereliction and low-income schools – propped afterwards by his African-American educator in ‘To Sir With Love’. This was totally consistent with his later films, through which he supplied the thrill of African-Americana, though he was the trustworthy benign man as well.

Ethnicity too was the cause in ‘Edge of the City’ (1957), in which he was cast as a relaxed, assured docker who became a sort of father-figure to a difficult soul fleeing the military police (played by a youthful John Cassavetes). Poitier’s frankness and beaming compassion in the film portrayed his acting zenith.

However it was in ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958) where he was unrestrained to a larger extent, as the African-American detainee chained to Tony Curtis’s racist hoodlum, fleeing together, finding out that they have to cooperate with each other and eventually befriending each other.

Next the film for which he achieved the distinction for being the first African-American guy to be awarded the best actor Oscar, came: ‘Lilies of the Field’ (1964), an everyman who finds himself duped into performing physical labour for some German emigrant nuns, eventually constructing their chapel, and attaining a secretive, if emotional sort of recompense for himself and his employers. It is a film with tenderness and attractiveness and it isn’t ostensibly about ethnicity. After three years, his extraordinary year arrived wherein his trio of hits were released, only to be followed by hostility.

In retrospect a few of Poitier’s portrayals do appear somewhat subdued, and because he was apparently Hollywood’s only African-American actor, it made him vulnerable. He was hurt by Clifford Mason’s essay and made more agitated by the 1990 theatre play ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ by John Guare, adapted from a real-life story of a young African-American swindler who conned his way into the villas and lives of affluent white people by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier. A few reviewers discovered here a vicious allegory for the manner Poitier himself had been allowed to become a hanger-on in the white realm of US culture.

Undoubtedly he was somewhat excessively controlling in his preference for characters. Perplexingly, he rejected a potentially-huge opportunity to be cast as Othello since it advertised an unsavoury persona of African-American folk, choosing schemes like his resonant CD recordings of recitations from Plato.

In our own time, Poitier’s accomplishments have been re-evaluated. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ was eventually about inter-ethnic matrimony and lovemaking – a topic which contemporary Hollywood now drops like a hot potato. Poitier managed it with grace and frankness. All hell didn’t break loose if he was superior and high-end. It was the truth. He bonded with a group barely recognized by white Hollywood: the huge strip of educated African-Americans moving up the social ladder, folks who would forever confront sinister bias and disdain.

Poitier constructed a niche for African-Amercian cinema, which made the work of Laurence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, and many more. The dynamism, power and rapidity of his roles in ‘Edge of the City’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ immortalize him as a screen trailblazer and a Hollywood icon.

Among all the hagiographies of him still being published in the Anglophone and Atlantic worlds, let’s also remember that people should always be credited for their good deeds. Poitier too was a larger than life person, beyond the stage and screen, who empathized with African-American folk.

A lot of readers may not be aware that when the celebrated African-American and human rights activist was assassinated, Poitier and his wife Juanita cared for Malcolm X’s family.

Poitier shifted Malcolm X’s wife and kids into his residence, where they resided with the former till Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz could purchase a house.

Poitier and his wife and actress Ruby Dee built a philanthropic enterprise and raised funds to assist Malcolm X’s wife purchase a home.

Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz discusses it in her book ‘Growing Up X’. She wrote that Poitier and his wife were companions of the family, advocates and backers of the Civil Rights Movement.

Poitier also asserted on performing his roles with grace even altering a vital series of events in his movie ‘In the Heat of the Night’ to satisfy his criteria.

In the actual script, Poitier’s protagonist, detective Virgil Tibbs, does not respond when a white accused hits him in the face. Poitier demanded on hitting the accused in return.

Poitier had once said: ‘I go in front of a camera with a responsibility to be at least respectful of certain values. My values are not disconnected from the values of the black community.’

What a great man and such a great legacy he leaves behind!

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached through email at razanaeem@hotmail.com.