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Sidney Poitier was far more than just a symbol of racial progress

Sidney Poitier on March 21, 1972.
Associated Press
Sidney Poitier on March 21, 1972.

Before I learned Sidney Poitier was a great actor, I learned he was important, with a capital "I."

By then he'd reached the lifetime achievement award circuit, and his legend loomed large. I learned he was the first Black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964 — which was a big deal in part because it would take another 38 years before another performer repeated the feat. He was one of those Black figures enshrined in the wistful, reverent glow of the civil rights era, dignity personified; you didn't say anything bad or critical about Sidney Poitier, just as you wouldn't with MLK Jr. or Rosa Parks.

Eventually, when I was around 13 or 14 and well into my old movie obsession, I'd go down a Sidney Poitier rabbit hole. I watched Lilies of the Field, featuring his Oscar-winning performance (my verdict: the movie was fine, nothing special, kind of slow). Then others that were more my speed: Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Paris Blues, In the Heat of the Night. I admired him, but more for the surface-level symbolic reasons. The halo of capital-I Importance and his place in the Great Black Heroes firmament beamed brightly, informing how I viewed him more so than his talents.

For years, that Importance overshadowed my view of Poitier's work – that is, until I learned for myself how important the craft and art of his work was to him. In order to fully appreciate him, then, I needed to appreciate his artistry.

Poitier, who died at 94 on Friday, spent the majority of his life being a symbol to millions of people: a symbol of "progress," "advancement," "hope," "dignity," and lots of other buzzwords often invoked in conversations about social issues. It's a daunting cross to bear — though, in the public eye, he always seemed to handle it with grace. But that doesn't mean he didn't sometimes bemoan his status being a man of many firsts. "I deal with race-based questions all the time, but I resent them," he told Oprah Winfrey in 2000. "I will not let the press thrust me into a definition by feeding me only race questions. I've established that my concern with race is substantive. But at the same time, I am not all about race."

Sidney Poitier in character in <em>The Lilies Of The Field</em> on Feb. 16, 1963.
/ Associated Press
Associated Press
Sidney Poitier in character in The Lilies Of The Field on Feb. 16, 1963.

Could you blame him for feeling this way? His first feature film role (following an uncredited appearance as an extra in Sepia Cinderella) was in the 1950 social problem drama No Way Out. He played Luther, a doctor who's forced to treat a pair of brothers who have been shot during a botched robbery. One of the brothers dies after Luther performs a spinal tap; the movie is careful to note that Luther administered proper treatment and is not at fault for the death. The other brother, Ray (Richard Widmark) is an outspoken racist and blames Luther.

Ray resists Luther's attempts to tend to his wound and spends much of the movie hurling insults at him. Despite Ray's incessant vitriol and the fact that, in the final act, he shoots Luther in the arm, the doctor sticks by his oath to keep Ray alive until the very end — because racist patient or no racist patient, he's a professional with integrity.

In his memoir The Measure of a Man, Poitier offered a telling reflection of seeing No Way Out in a theater with his parents in Nassau, Bahamas. (Poitier, a Bahamian American, was born unexpectedly in Miami while his parents were visiting; he grew up on Cat Island.) It was the first movie his parents had ever seen, he wrote, and upon witnessing Widmark's character pistol-whip Poitier's character, his mother jumped up and started yelling at the screen. "Hit him back, Sidney! Hit him back! You never did nothing to him!" The actor's memory of this moment is a brief anecdote recounted affectionately, chalked up to his mother's ostensible naivete about the difference between her son, the young man she raised and loved, and her son, the actor playing a character on screen.

But there's an irony in her response, too. For years to come, many Black audience members who had no personal connection to Poitier at all and who were wholly familiar with the moviegoing experience, would express similar concerns about the character's he'd play, albeit for different reasons. Why didn't Sidney hit him back? Because for years the only way Hollywood would allow Poitier to become its go-to Black leading man was if his characters turned the other cheek in the face of unrelenting white bigotry.

After learning Poitier was Important, I would discover that, actually, he was controversial in his heyday, the symbol (to some) of a "sell out": subservient to white people without the butler's uniform. In an infamously scathing New York Times piece from 1967, the Black playwright Clifford Mason pondered "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?" and referred to Poitier's stately roles in movies like A Patch of Blue – in which he played a newspaper reporter who befriends and saves a young blind white girl from an abusive living situation – as that of a "showcase nigger."

In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin was more forgiving of Poitier's individual work as an actor, but observed the absurdity of the system he was stuck in. He wrote about the climactic ending of The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis play chained prisoners on the run, Noah and Joker. (Joker, of course, starts off the movie as a bigot, until the pair become something like friends, or at least, brothers in chained arms.) "Liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy," Baldwin wrote. "The Harlem audience was outraged and yelled, Get back on the train you fool!"

Tony Curtis as "Joker" and Poitier as "Noah" in <em>The Defiant Ones,</em> directed by Stanley Kramer.
AFP / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Tony Curtis as "Joker" and Poitier as "Noah" in The Defiant Ones, directed by Stanley Kramer.

This was barely progress, his critics said. The observances were not totally unfounded – Poitier did help craft the Hollywood prototype of the fine, upstanding Negro, whose character is so unassailable and temper so tamped down in response to racism, as to be rendered one-note and expressionless on its surface. (Despite many strides, this is still a recognizable character today – see Mahershala Ali's Oscar-winning role as Don Shirley in Green Book.)

But with hindsight and a closer look at his oeuvre, there's an opportunity to appreciate Poitier not just for the symbolism he represented, but for how those systemic constraints could nevertheless translate to great performances onscreen. He had a gift for unleashing simmering tension like a hot tea kettle when the moment called for it. His delivery of the final line in No Way Out, for instance, comes while he's tending to the sobbing Ray. He manages to capture an expression of disdain, pride and schadenfreude simultaneously: "Don't cry, white boy. You're gonna live!"

As Walter Lee Younger in the 1961 adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, he was allowed more range and expression than many of his other roles of that era. Walter embodies defiance, resentment and ambition, the essence of Black American dreams deferred, and Poitier inhabits those anxieties so fully and deeply. The prickly conflicts Walter has with each of the main characters, especially his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee, a frequent Poitier onscreen romantic partner), showcase an actor who understands writer Lorraine Hansberry's rich character inside and out.

In his fantastic portrayal as Detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, he astutely conveys that character's supreme annoyance in each encounter he faces with bigot after bigot in a small, sweaty Mississippi town. There's the signature line, of course – "They call me MISTER TIBBS!"and the backhanded slap felt 'round the world, which Poitier said was his idea to add to the script. This time, if Sidney was going to get hit by a white man, he was going to strike back. But there's also the side-eye he frequently casts upon Rod Steiger's police chief Gillespie, and the smooth, assured way he commands himself while sniffing out clues to the murder investigation he reluctantly gets himself involved in. There's power and resilience in those quieter moments.

I also view his performance in Paris Blues as one of his best; he and Paul Newman play American expats and jazz musicians who find romance in Paris with a pair of vacationing friends played by Diahann Carroll and Joanne Woodward. It's a sophisticated adult love story in which Poitier has an opportunity to be romantic and sexy – itself a revolutionary thing for its time – and my goodness, the chemistry he had with Carroll could fog up a mirror. The racial politics in this movie feel more contemporary and less like the dreams of a Hollywood factory, with Poitier and Carroll's characters debating the merits of Black life in America versus Black life abroad in between the sparks.

In his later years, when Poitier was able to seize more control over his career, his work conveyed both his wide-ranging interests and the looser side of his persona. His debut directorial feature, Buck and the Preacher, is a western that places Black people at its center, presenting white cowboys as the antagonists and Native Americans as allies. He, Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee are a trifecta here, and while Poitier doesn't stray too far from his dignified persona, he does get to be a hero who won't take any guff hurled his way by racists.

He'd delve into comedies both in front of and behind the cameras: notably, a trio of movies with Bill Cosby in the 1970s and the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder jaunt Stir Crazy. While he slowed down in his later years, he turned in another fine performance in 1992 as a member of Robert Redford's team of hackers in Sneakers.

And all the while, he was an artist. More than a symbol. It's true that he blazed a trail for the Denzels, Angelas, Violas and other Black Hollywood stars to come. It's also true that in order to do so, some of those roles were less interesting than others – ahem, Liles of the Field – and others were frustrating to watch. (Because really, Luther should've just let Ray die from his wounds after the umpteenth degradation, and Noah could've stayed on that train and left Joker behind.) But Poitier also had range, craft, and was a performer always worth watching. I'll celebrate every facet of his artistic being.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.