Sidney Poitier — RIP

To those of us who matured during the years when he released Little Nikita and Sneakers, “Sidney Poitier” was a name, a property. He registered as a benign presence, faintly worried, as if he had lived long enough to understand the fragility of the enterprise. As a result, the Sidney Poitier who made Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out proved a revelation. We recognize the type: a hungry actor, his sexuality fusing with cunning and a natural intelligence, transforming a pro forma part: a doctor subject to the racist gibes of Richard Widmark(also at his most feral), Poitier showed the lyrical grace and self-trained voice modulations that would become his hallmarks as a star a decade later. What’s striking, though, is his power.

In the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education years, a time when Paul Robeson’s flirtations with Communism ended his Hollywood career, Poitier’s performance — a live wire fizzing in the water — might’ve been dangerous not too long before. The same force animated Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) and Blackboard Jungle (1955). Facile analyses of the latter tend to play up the importance of rock ‘n’ roll in the picture, but, really, rock ‘n’ roll and Poitier are inseparable; rock ‘n’ roll was “race music.” Incapable of quashing his ability to command the screen, Poitier challenged the white audience’s expectations of obsequiousness from a Black actor; that it could not have happened in the years after WWII, the desegregation of the armed forces, and a quasi-sympathetic Supreme Court should not detract from the singularity of Poitier as a figure. Somebody had to do it, and, boy, he wasn’t shy about it.

And any dimwitted filmgoer in the 1960s knew it. “One of the very few actors on the American screen who is not compelled to spend most of his cinema time proving that he is not afraid of women,” James Baldwin wrote in The Devil Finds Work, a series of anguished reflections on how poorly the Robeson-Ethel Waters generation were served by studio executives, how little remuneration they earned in their country (Robeson had to pay for the decisions his country forced him to do). Eventually the compromises with Hollywood specifically and white American generally would exact a cost on Poitier too. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote. The more popular he grew, the more completely — the more tragically — he embodied a paradox. He could fill wheelbarrows of money playing representations of Black men with which previous generations could be more comfortable, except now as leading parts. A Patch of Blue (1965) depends on the audience’s awareness of his skin color; they wonder, would the blind Elizabeth Hartman love him as a Black man? What makes A Patch of Blue discomforting anyway is how well it believes in its liberal piety. Yes! Of course she would! He’s not the gas station attendant to whom Lana Turner alludes as a suitable date for Susan Kohner’s woman of color — he’s Sidney Fuckin’ Poitier!. He’s a star, therefore an exception.

A similar tension does little to lift Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which to men and women, Black and white, in 1967 the idea that brahmins like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would object to Poitier’s WHO-approved doctor, let me stress, shortlisted for the Nobel Prize marrying their ninny of a daughter would’ve refuted their own expectations about Sidney Poitier. Liberal monolith Sidney Kramer, director, would’ve been well aware of the film’s sexism: asked to choose between Katharine Houghton (Hepburn’s real-life niece!) and Poitier…well.

But in 1967 audiences accepted the fantasy. Not because they were stupid — they accepted it because in 1967 a married Black man and a white woman onscreen still broke brains. A unanimous Warren Court a year earlier had struck down racial covenants in. Loving v. Virginia. In its Brown ruling a decade-plus earlier the Court had ordered the end of school segregation “with all deliberate speed.” No deliberateness here. Watching Broughton and Poitier — blessed by Tracy and Hepburn, themselves the incarnation of Hollywood survivorhood (with Hepburn declared box office poison in the 1930s for failing to live up to audience conceptions of femininity) — smile and hold hands in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner registered as a symbol potent enough to shrivel accusations of camp: in its way as shattering a visual image as Poitier’s more iconic role in that year’s Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night as a forensic expert from Philly whose instinctive reaction to getting slapped by a white man is to slap back. Whether it “would have happened” is irrelevant; it induces less eye-rolling than the Oscar-designed scene where Poitier and Rod Steiger (also Oscar-rewarded) get drunk and bond. I’m sure Kramer and Hepburn loved it. Baldwin, characteristically, was not fooled. I can’t read the last sentence without imagining tongue in cheek or bile in mouth:

Virgil Tibbs would’ve been the hunted, not the hunter. It is impossible not to pretend this state of affairs has really altered: a black man, in any case, had certainly best not believe everything he sees in the movies.

Remembering Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution argument for 1967 as the point at which sociopolitical forces penetrated the sort of prestige pictures that had bored moviegoers since the Thalberg era at MGM, I can understand how the projects Poitier starred in and directed in the 1970’s, profile dimmed, represented a means of career management, of keeping one’s selfhood. Uptown Saturday Night (1973) demonstrated a conversance with blaxploitation films, giving Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor more to do on screen than audiences had seen. He scored a major success directing the Gene Wilder comedy Stir Crazy (1980). He also made Ghost Dad, a movie so hideous that watching it makes you believe in burn-Hollywood-burn.

Here’s why we can’t scoff at Poitier and Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: during an era of putative growth in diversity, Denzel Washington could not so much as kiss Julia Roberts in 1993’s The Pelican Brief. In the novel they become lovers. Everyone had read the novel (in 1993 “everyone” read John Grisham). Yet the audience accepted chasteness. No doubt a considerable percentage of them imagined Denzel ‘n’ Julia lolling in bed, then squealed, treating their fantasy as a Buñuel character might. Poitier might’ve understood. But there he was at the 2002 Academy Awards accepting an honorary Oscar the year Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress. His beautifully written and delivered acceptance speech managed to be gracious but cutting: he reminded audiences of the thousands of talents banished from the spotlight. Always with Poitier a stiletto wrapped in velvet.

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