By Bob Light
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Sidney Poitier—the two sides of dignity and grace

A picture of Sidney Poitier alongside four other people

Sidney Poitier (centre, left) at a dinner in his honour (Picture: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The death of actor Sidney Poitier has seen an outpouring of extravagant tributes from some unlikely places. 

Black celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Tyler Perry to Viola Davis have issued the most lavish compliments, as you might expect. But Poitier’s career has also been celebrated big-time in all of the most right wing newspapers in this country. 

Most splashed Poitier’s photo on their front page—including, most unusually, the Financial Times. Their tributes took up column inches normally reserved for snide attacks on Meghan Markle or anyone else who is “woke”—like say Oprah or Tyler Perry.

In all the obituaries the words that keep re-occurring are “dignity” and “grace”, and Poitier as an actor undeniably had both in abundance. His straight-back bearing, his sonorous voice, his handsome good looks, all signalled dignity and grace. 

However, Poitier was not born into a world with much of either. One of seven children, he was born two months prematurely in Miami, where his small-holder parents from the Bahamas were trying to sell their tomatoes. 

Poitier would later return to the US to make his way as an actor, but again would spend many years living in poverty until he made it in movies. In his 1980 autobiography, Poitier records how he used these years to develop his persona. He began dressing smartly in a suit, working on his deportment and improving his accent by listening to how newsreaders spoke on the BBC.

And he succeeded probably beyond his wildest dreams. 

Poitier would go on to become the first black actor to make it to the Hollywood A list. He was the first to have his name above the film credits, the first to win the Oscar for best actor in 1964, the first to be the number one box-office attraction in 1967-68. 

Those were astonishing achievements and the reason why so many obituaries referred to him as a “breakthrough” star.

But as his career developed Poitier was also a magnet for intense criticism from US black writers who considered him to be an “Uncle Tom”. A famous article in The New York Times newspaper by black playwright Clifford Mason posed the question, “Why does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Mason answered that Poitier was “a black version of the man in the grey flannel suit taking on white problems and a white man’s sense of what’s wrong with the world”. 

The radical black writer James Baldwin—who was a friend of Poitier—told the story of watching one of Poitier’s films The Defiant Ones with different audiences in New York. The Defiant Ones is the story of two convicts chained together at the wrist and on the run from a prison in the US Deep South. One is an uneducated white bigot (Tony Curtis), the other is a more thoughtful black man (Poitier). They have been chained together “because the warden had a sense of humour”. 

At the film’s climax they have finally broken the chains, and they chase a freight train that will take them to freedom. Poitier just makes it onto the train, but Curtis does not have the strength to clamber on board. 

So, Poitier picks up the black man’s burden and jumps off his freedom ride to go to the aid of his new friend. Baldwin saw the film first on Broadway with a white audience who “clapped with reassurance—their racial guilt alleviated”. Then Baldwin saw the film in Harlem where the black audience screamed, “Get back on that train, fool.”

Poitier won his Oscar for a now-unwatchable religious parable called Lilies from the Field. But apart from The Defiant Ones, his reputation stands on two iconic movies, In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. They would win multiple Oscars. 

In both, Poitier’s character has had every single defining experience of being black in the US eviscerated—with the important exception of his skin colour. In The Heat of the Night features Virgil Tibbs as a crack Chicago detective. He finds himself stranded in the Deep South and forced to help an incompetent police investigation solve a grisly murder. 

Tibbs is explicitly not part of the local black community. He dresses like Ralph Lauren, he talks like the Queen of England and he has detective skills which Sherlock Holmes could only dream of. And his final triumph is not in solving the case—it is in winning the respect of the racist white cops.   

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a very different story but its racial dynamics are similar. Technically it is probably a rom-com, but the comedy is totally over-burdened by the heavy-handed liberalism. 

Poitier plays Dr John Wade Prentice who has fallen in love with an upper-class white woman and who travels to her parents’ home to ask their permission to marry her. He is not only a brilliant and wealthy surgeon, he is a Nobel Prize winner no less who jet-sets the world working for the World Health Organisation. 

And despite his love for Joanna—confirmed in one of the first inter-racial kisses in US cinema history—he will not marry her unless her father gives his consent. When that approval appears to be unlikely—because Joanna’s father is a racist—Dr Prentice makes plans to abandon the love of his life rather than confront the bigotry. 

It is important to stress that both these films were written and directed by white liberals—men who seriously wanted to change US racism. In fact, it should be remembered that when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released inter-racial marriage was still a criminal offence in 17 US states so to that extent it was a daring movie in its day. 

However, in both movies Poitier’s character is an almost impossibly flawless image of black middle class perfection. And in both movies, it is white approval that is the prize that he is striving for. 

You do have to ask what these characters had to say to ordinary black people living in the hell of poverty and injustice created by entrenched US racism. You do have to ask how in that hell even liberals thought these characters represented the living experience of being black in the US. 

So, to this extent Clifford Mason’s critique seems vindicated, but a wider-angled view gives a different perspective on the paradoxes of Poitier.

The most fundamental point to make is that Hollywood was as systematically racist as the US itself. Indeed, the very movie theatres themselves were racially segregated—in the South there were separate black and white cinemas, in the North there were separate seating spaces. 

And the movies all told, what Baldwin described in I Am Not Your Negro as “stories we do not own”. Hollywood was exclusively white cinema—it actively excluded the experience and very often the presence of black people. Indeed, film critic Richard Dyer convincingly argues that the conventions of lighting and the camera lenses that Hollywood used were chosen deliberately to suit only white skin tones.

To offer just a single but hopefully telling example. Alfred Hitchcock—widely regarded as the “greatest of all time” among directors—made 32 Hollywood movies.  I have not re-viewed them all. But from memory I cannot recall one single character of any narrative significance played by a black actor in any of them. 

In 1955’s The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda plays a jazz musician living in New York City. It was the most ethnically diverse city in the world even in 1955—and still there are no non-white characters in the movie. Just in case you are tempted to discount this as ancient history, I should remind you what Dylan Morran logged about the Harry Potter movies. He found that in the 1,207 minutes, non-white characters are involved for five minutes and 40 seconds. 

That is the cinema cancel culture that aspirant black actors like Poitier had to navigate. 

The situation was very slightly better for black women actors. In the main, they would only be cast as either comic relief, stereotyped “mammies” or “happy slaves” like Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. 

Ironically, however, the racialist moralism of the Hayes Censorship Code in Hollywood, dictated that white women actors were strictly forbidden from being overly sexualised on screen. But black women could provide the sexual titillation the white male audience craved. 

So, there were some more bit-parts while the white stars still got top billing and fat salaries. Brilliant black women actors, such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lina Horne, simply could not sustain a career in Hollywood.

Perhaps the best way to understand Poitier’s significance in cinema history is to see him against the changing pattern of Black resistance in the US. In the immediate post-war period this was still dominated by the reformist politics of persuasion, typified by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Through the 1950s, black struggle became more combative and confrontational with the mass mobilisations of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. By the time Poitier was shooting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, black ghettoes were burning. And Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and Black Power had taken politics into an entirely new radicalism. 

Off-screen Poitier was a committed anti-racist. He was a personal friend of Martin Luther King, he participated in some of the Civil Rights marches, including the March on Washington. But on screen, his persona was fixed by the old school politics of the NAACP by the need to seek the approval of white power through “respectability”. 

Poitier himself could never even play at being any kind of black radical. The most militant moment he ever had on screen, is when Poitier slaps the white supremacist Southern aristocrat in In the Heat of The Night. And significantly he does this only after he himself has been slapped. 

The problem was that Poitier’s screen persona was indeed defined by the “dignity” and “grace” that he had spent so long perfecting to get his career-break. They are qualities that the NAACP would recognise and encourage, but they are much less ostensible when you are wearing a black beret and shades and holding an AK47. 

Dignity was indeed a step forward from the humiliating characterisations that black actors had to play, when they were allowed to, in the 1930s and 40s. Stepin’ Fetchit and Amos and Andy were anything but dignified or graceful in their submissive portrayals. 

But Poitier’s persona excluded all the pain, all the suffering, all the anger, most of the injustice and so much of the real experience of being black in the racist US. In the year that Poitier won his Oscar, in Concordia Louisiana, a black man was still being lynched for the “crime” of “flirting with a white woman”. 

Perhaps this helps explain the two faces of this week’s tributes to Sidney Poitier. To the newer generation of black actors, he was indeed a breakthrough star who established a platform from which much more challenging and radical Black talent could catch a break. For the editors of the racist Daily Express, The Sun and The Daily Mail, the Poitier they were mourning on their front pages represented an image of black people when they knew their place.

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