erik lundegaard

Saturday January 08, 2022

Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

According to “Belafonte’s Balancing Act,” an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, when Harry Belafonte joined the American Negro Theater in Harlem in the late 1940s he met another aspiring young actor, originally from Cat Island, Bahamas, with whom he quickly became friends even though they often competed for the same roles. In one production called “Days of Our Youth,” Belafonte got the lead but he also had a regular job as a janitor’s assistant, emptying garbage, etc., and one night he couldn’t find anyone to cover for the janitor job, so the understudy, his friend, went on in his place. That also happened to be the night off-Broadway producers came to the theater seeking actors for an all-Black version of Lysistrata. They tapped the understudy. Soon his friend had a starring role in the Joseph Mankiewicz movie “No Way Out,” co-starring Richard Widmark, and was on his way.

“As a result,” Gates writes, “Belafonte has long joked that [Sidney] Poitier’s career is ‘based on garbage.’” Good line.

Sidney Poitier was the first the way that Jackie Robinson was the first—but also not. After Jackie broke through he was followed by Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson. Baseball was forever changed. After Sidney Poitier broke through as a leading man in prestige Hollywood productions, he was followed by … um … Denzel? Whoever it was, it took a while. We got blaxploitation stars: Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree and Ron O’Neal. I guess James Earl Jones and Paul Winfield had moments, Howard E. Rollins had a moment, but the next crossover stars were comedians: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. So really it’s Denzel. It took decades.

The point is Sidney was alone on his journey. The point is that while Jackie stopped having to turn the other cheek in 1949, Sidney never really got the chance. Endicott notwithstanding.

He was already legendary but kind of over by the time I came of age in the mid-1970s. Historian Donald Bogle calls him “a hero for an integrationist age,” which is why he was kind of over. No one was fighting for integration anymore. 

Did he ever tire of the routine? Show up, be exceptional, turn racists around? That feels like half his movies. “A Black doctor is assigned to treat two white racist suspects…” “Two escaped convicts chained together…” “A couple’s attitudes are challenged when…” “A blind, uneducated white girl is befriended by…” “A traveling handyman becomes the answers to the prayers of nuns…”

And of course: “A Black Philadelphia police detective is mistakenly suspected of…”

Mark Harris, in his obit, touches on the burden he carried:

For a movie actor, there is perhaps no crueler fate than to be forced to serve as a symbol from the first day you step in front of the cameras to the moment when, more than 50 years later, you give your final performance. Acting is about risk-taking, exploration, struggling all your life with how best to make vivid the humanity of the character you play, for better and for worse. It's hard, maybe even impossible, to do your job when the expectations of an entire industry, and of an entire race, are draped across your shoulders.

It is part of the lasting significance of Poitier that he took on a burden he never asked for not as a curse but as a responsibility, and bore it not with resentment but with unshowy solemnity. 

Then there's Howard Bryant’s tweet on this scene in “In the Heat of the Night,” whose significance I missed:

Did anyone have a year like Poitier had in 1967? “To Sir With Love” was released in June, “In the Heat of the Night’ in August, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” December. All three were box-office smashes. “Guess Who” was the second-biggest movie of the year after “The Graduate,” while the title song to “To Sir With Love”—which was basically a love song to Sidney Poitier—was the No. 1 song of the year. “Guess Who” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won two (actress; screenplay), while “In the Heat of the Night” was nominated for seven and won five, including actor for Rod Steiger, editing for Hal Ashby, and best picture. It also had the longest legs. Sidney played Virgil Tibbs two more times in the 1970s, and the concept became a TV staple in the 1980s with Carroll O’Connor and Howard E. Rollins.

He was shut out that year. Poitier received just two Oscar nominations in his career: the famous one he won, “Lilies in the Fields,” which probably had more to do with the year it was released—the year of Birmingham, the March, and the JFK assassination—than anything else; and “The Defiant Ones” in 1958. That one was a breakthrough, too: the first nomination for a Black man in any acting category. The next Black actor to win an Oscar after Poitier was Louis Gosset Jr. in 1982. The next to win as lead was Denzel in 2001. Poitier was actually more honored in England, where the BAFTAs had a “Foreign Actor” category—basically anyone not British—and where he was nominated six times: “Edge of the City,” “Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lilies,” “Patch of Blue” and “In the Heat of the Night.” He won for “Defiant Ones.”

By the time I came of age, Poitier wasn’t doing the integrationist thing anymore; he was directing and starring in a series of comedies with Bill Cosby. I wouldn’t mind seeing those, to be honest, to see if there’s anything there. He also directed “Stir Crazy,” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, a huge, huge hit. He also directed himself and his old friend, Harry Belafonte, in a western, “Buck and the Preacher.”

Two more things from Gates’ essay. At one point in the late 1940s, still scrambling, Belafonte and Poitier decided that comedy was the way to go and worked on a standup routine. Can you imagine? The comedy stylings of Belafonte and Poitier? The young actors were also befriended by acting/singing legend Paul Robeson, who was impressed with them. “I remember times,” Poitier says in the essay, “when he and I would meet Robeson in a bar on Fifth Avenue just off 125th Street, and sit there and talk.” Feels like it could be a play—a 1940s version of “One Night in Miami.” Someone should be working on that.

Posted at 12:05 PM on Saturday January 08, 2022 in category Movies  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard