Although it really shouldn’t have been a big surprise (hey, 94 trips around the Sun ain’t bad), Sidney Poitier’s last goodbye still hit me harder than I thought it would:
(CNN) Sidney Poitier, whose elegant bearing and principled onscreen characters made him Hollywood’s first Black movie star and the first Black man to win the best actor Oscar, has died. He was 94.
Clint Watson, press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to CNN that Poitier died Thursday evening.
Poitier overcame an impoverished background in the Bahamas and softened his thick island accent to rise to the top of his profession at a time when prominent roles for Black actors were rare. He won the Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played an itinerant laborer who helps a group of White nuns build a chapel.
Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans were grappling with social changes wrought by the civil rights movement. In 1967 alone, he appeared as a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in small-town Mississippi in “In the Heat of the Night” and a doctor who wins over his White fiancée’s skeptical parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Even with 20/20 hindsight, it’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact of Sidney Poitier in White America’s Hollywood. In The Heat of The Night, the 1968 Oscar-winning film directed by Norman Jewison, has a scene that powerfully illustrated why that was.
Years ago, before Times Square was assimilated by The
Borg Walt Disney Corporation, I used to skip my classes in high school, take the subway to 42nd Street and spend the day watching movies. On this particular afternoon, the movie that I saw was In The Heat of the Night, and I can still clearly remember feeling a collective gasp ripple throughout the entire theater when Poitier slapped Mr. Endicott in the face.
There are pivotal moments in movies when the screen becomes a portal that the audience willingly steps through and they completely immerse themselves into the story being told. Remember when Peter Finch and Murray Head shared a passionate kiss in Sunday Bloody Sunday? Alien revealed the horror of seeing the thing bursting out of John Hurt’s chest. The apes of 2001 gathering around the monolith. There’s Jaws, where a drunken Robert Shaw quietly explains to a horrified Scheider and Dreyfuss why he’ll never wear a life jacket again.
And Sidney Poitier was Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective from Philadelphia who is investigating a murder in goddamned Sparta, Mississippi, a small town in the deep South where black lives never mattered. But in spite of knowing how dangerous it was, Tibbs didn’t hesitate to slap that arrogant white plantation owner who stupidly assaulted him. They call me Mr. Tibbs. Even now, this scene is extraordinary and powerful.
It was the slap seen in movie theaters ’round the world.
But wait, it gets better.
In the textbook Civil Rights and Race Relations in the USA, Poitier states: “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie. I try not to do things that are against nature.”
And Poitier wasn’t a fraudulent Hollywood tough guy who only demonstrated his bravery by beating up on stuntmen onscreen. During the filming of In The Heat of the Night, the cast and crew were harassed by loudmouth redneck assholes. Poitier didn’t ask to leave; he slept with a gun under his pillow instead. As my favorite Aunt used to say, Don’t start none, won’t be none.
Not every movie that Poitier starred in was a classic, of course. However, throughout his distinguished career in Hollywood, Poitier never allowed himself to become the punchline of dumb racist jokes. I try not to do things that are against nature, Poitier said. And he kept that promise. Poitier was an ebony mirror that reflected black people’s strength, dignity and elegance. Shuckin’ and jivin’ was never in Poitier’s toolbox.
Poitier just ignored the “White Only” signs and went where he needed to go and the world made room for him because Poitier wouldn’t be ignored. And yeah, the brother made it look cool af, too.
(Because I’m a sf nerd, sometimes I like to imagine there’s an alternate universe where Poitier is sitting in the Captain’s chair on the Enterprise. That’d be so easy to sell.)
At the Academy Awards on March 24, 2002, a grateful Denzel Washington acknowledged the importance of Sidney Poitier’s legacy, because Washington understood that “next” will never happen if someone doesn’t do it “first”.
“Before Sidney, African American actors had to take supporting roles in major studio films that were easy to cut out in certain parts of the country,” Washington, then 47, told the audience before bringing Poitier to the stage. “But you couldn’t cut Sidney Poitier out of a Sidney Poitier picture. He was the reason a movie got made: the first solo, above-the-title African American movie star. He was unique.”
Thank you, Mr. Poitier. A blessing to your memory.