Human rights

Sidney Poitier’s civil rights legacy intertwined with his life on screen

Bahamian actor and civil rights activist Sidney Poitier supported the campaign for the poor in Resurrection City, a slum created by protesters in Washington, DC, May 1968. Source: Chester Sheard / Getty

In the summer of 1967, Martin Luther King jr. introduced the keynote speaker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference 10th Anniversary Convention Banquet. Their guest, he said, was his “soul mate”.

“He has carved out an imperishable place for himself in the annals of our nation’s history,” King told the audience of 2,000 delegates. “I consider him a friend. I consider him a great friend of humanity.

This man was Sidney Poitier.

Poitier, who died at the age of 94 on January 7, 2021, has broken the mold of what a black actor could be in Hollywood. Prior to the 1950s, film noir characters generally reflected racist stereotypes such as lazy servants and beefy grannies. Then came Poitier, the only black man to consistently win leading roles in major films from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Like King, Poitier projected ideals of respectability and integrity. He attracted not only the loyalty of African Americans, but also the goodwill of white liberals.

In my biography of him, titled “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon”, I sought to capture his entire life, including his incredible ragged bow to wealth, his sizzling onscreen vitality, his triumphs and his personal weaknesses and his quest to live up to the values ​​stated by his Bahamian parents. But the most fascinating aspect of Poitier’s career, to me, was its political and racial symbolism. In many ways, his life on screen was intertwined with that of the civil rights movement – and of King himself.

Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier

Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Asa Philip Randolph, Sidney Poitier, Portrait, circa 1960. | Source: Universal History Archives / Getty

An era of protests

In three separate columns in 1957, 1961 and 1962, a New York Daily News columnist named Dorothy Masters marveled that Poitier had the warmth and charisma of a minister. Poitier lent his name and resources to King’s causes, and he participated in events such as the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage and the 1963 March on Washington. In this era of sit-ins, Freedom Rides and mass marches, activists have engaged in non-violent sacrifices not only to highlight racist oppression, but also to gain wider sympathy for the cause of the civil rights.

In the same vein, Poitier deliberately chose to stage characters who radiated kindness. They had decent values ​​and helped the white characters, and they often sacrificed themselves. He got his first starring in 1958, in “The Defiant Ones”, in which he played an escaped prisoner handcuffed to a racist played by Tony Curtis. In the end, with the chain untied, Poitier jumps off a train to stay with his new white friend. Writer James Baldwin reported seeing the film on Broadway, where white audiences cheered reassuringly, their racial guilt mitigated. When he saw him again in Harlem, predominantly black members of the public shouted, “Get on the train, you fool!” “

King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That same year, Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who built a chapel for children. German nuns out of the goodness of her heart. The low-budget sweet film was a surprise success. In its own way, like the gruesome images of garden hoses and police dogs attacking civil rights activists, it has fostered growing support for racial integration.

Scene from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is introduced to the father of his fiancée Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) in a scene from the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967. | Source: John Springer / Getty Collection

A better man

At the time of the actor’s speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King and Poitier appeared to have a hold on the American audience. Bloody and destructive riots have raged in cities across the country, reflecting the lingering discontent of many poor African Americans. Growing calls for “black power” challenged ideals of non-violence and racial brotherhood – ideals associated with both King and Poitier.

When Poitier rose to the pulpit that evening, he lamented “greed, selfishness, indifference to the suffering of others, the corruption of our value system and a moral deterioration that has already marked our souls. irrevocably ”. “In my bad days,” he said, “I am guilty of suspecting that there is a national death wish. “

By the end of the 1960s, King and Poitier were at a crossroads. Federal law dismantled Jim Crow in the South, but African Americans still suffered from limited opportunities. King ordered a “value revolution,” denounced the Vietnam War, and launched a campaign of the poor. Poitier, in his 1967 speech for the SCLC, said that King, by adhering to his beliefs for social justice and human dignity, “made me a better man.”

Exceptional characters

Poitier tried to adhere to his own convictions. As long as he was the only black leader, he insisted on playing the same kind of hero. But during the Black Power era, had the saint hero of Poitier become another stereotype? His rage was suppressed, his sexuality stifled. A black critic, writing in The New York Times, asked “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so?”

US President Barack Obama presents the P

President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Ambassador and actor Sidney Poitier during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on August 12, 2009. | usage worldwide Source: BIJOU SAMAD / Getty

This critic was right: as Poitier himself knew, his films created characters that were too perfect. While the films made white audiences appreciate a black man, they also implied that racial equality hinged on these exceptional characters, stripped of all racial baggage. From late 1967 to early 1968, three of Poitier’s films held top spot at the box office, and a poll ranked him as Hollywood’s most bankable star.

Each film provided a hero who appeased the liberal center. Her well-behaved teacher in “To Sir, With Love” tames a class of rogue teens in London’s East End. His sharp detective in “In the Heat of the Night” helps a cranky white Southern Sheriff solve a murder. Her world-famous doctor in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” marries a white woman, but only after receiving her parents’ blessing.

“I try to make films on the dignity, the nobility, the magnificence of human life,” he insisted. Audiences have flocked to his films, in part because he transcended racial divide and social desperation – even as more African Americans, baby boomers and movie critics are fed up with it. the old-fashioned feel-good spirit of those films.

Intertwined lives

And then, the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sidney Poitier crossed one last time. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Poitier was the substitute for the ideal embodied by King. During its Oscar presentation, Poitier won a huge ovation. “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” won most of the major awards. Hollywood has again addressed the racial upheaval of the nation through the films of Poitier.

But after King’s brutal murder, the Poitier icon no longer captured the national vibe. In the 1970s, a generation of “Blaxploitation” films featured violent and sexually charged heroes. They were a reaction against the image of a black leader associated with Poitier. Although his career evolved, Poitier was no longer a superstar and he no longer had the burden of representing the black freedom movement. Yet for a generation it had been the preeminent expression in popular culture of the ideals of Martin Luther King.

Aram Goudsouzian, Professor of Bizot Family History, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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