ActivismCultureFilm / TV

sidney poitier: hollywood’s leading man

February 20, 2019
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The difficult positions we find ourselves vary, but one thing is for sure: we’re rarely confronted with the binary decisions that force us to choose between good and bad. As Nikki Giovanni once said, we’re often choosing between bad and worse, and neither is particularly exciting but we must choose because we must live. Sidney Poitier was presented with such a choice. Born in 1927, as a Black man with stars in his eyes, he didn’t have a plethora of options that were particularly good, just bad and worse.

Sidney Poitier was one of the first — if not the first — Black man to breakthrough in Hollywood and be seen as a leading man. He was certainly the first to win a Best Actor Oscar. Poitier was not a sambo or a thug, but a gentleman. He had arms you desire to fall into. For white audiences, he was a Black man that you could see be armed with guns and bravado, and not be threatened by. As you engage Poitier’s relationship with race, patriarchy, and media representation disappointing ideas are offered: I’ve always despised Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The film felt Poitier attempting to move away from race, instead of moving through it. Something about it always felt disingenuous and incomplete, and idealistic in an era of radical reckoning. The film’s desire to create a world of Black and white ‘understanding’ felt quite beside the point when I think of the political and social oppression — the obstacles — that existed for Black people outside of the idea of interracial relationship. This is just one example of an artistic choice that didn’t feel necessarily good, but just what was available and the best out of the bad options.

But Sidney Poitier’s influence and talent is immeasurable. We can’t see the breathtaking performances by Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle or Mahershala Ali, and not think of Poitier’s influence and gifts. We can’t engage today’s current moment of demanding representation in film and television, and not think about how Poitier pushed the conversation even when it was not popular, and change felt unlikely.

The final scene of Sidney Poitier singing “Amen” in Lilies of of the Field to, and eventually with, white nuns illustrates one way I believe Poitier exists in the public imagination — charming, strong, helpful, angelic, and with an enthralling magnetism that can’t be denied that is eagerly consumed and used by white people. In the film, he just finished building the nuns’ chapel before delving into song. At the age of 92, Poitier in many ways is in the twilight of his life and reflecting on the chapel he helped rebuild and push called Hollywood — despite the flaws it still has.  This is not the best choice for Black genius, but often it’s the one that the times has given us.