January 12, 2022

Sidney Poitier

“Sidney Poitier, the groundbreaking actor and enduring inspiration who transformed how Black people were portrayed on screen, and became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance and the first to be a top box-office draw, has died. He was 94.” AP News

Both sides praise Poitier’s contributions to film, the civil rights movement, and his overall legacy:

“For millions of black people of Poitier’s generation, when dignified depictions of blacks in motion pictures were still scarce, his most famous roles—the detective in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ the teacher in ‘To Sir, With Love,’ the doctor in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ the handyman in ‘Lilies of the Field’—epitomized how a black man should carry himself…

“Poitier’s heyday was the 1960s, and a case could be made that these positive portrayals of black men helped shift attitudes against Jim Crow almost as much as the sit-ins and marches led by civil-rights activists… The nation owes him a debt of gratitude.”
Jason L. Riley, Wall Street Journal

“Before Poitier, the few positive images focused on lighter-skinned Black musicians and entertainers like Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll. Poitier had beautiful dark skin and portrayed distinguished characters. Escaping stereotypical roles in Hollywood as an actor is nearly impossible, yet he managed to do it. The characters he portrayed were often elegant and educated, and they always had dignity. They were role models…

Poitier made his community proud in every role he played, as a director, as a role model, as an activist. He possessed that quiet dignity that I have seen in many Black men, particularly my uncles. It is a strength and dignity rarely portrayed in Hollywood – even now, at a time where there is greater representation. It took four decades before another Black man, Denzel Washington, would win the 2001 Academy Award for best actor and acknowledged that he was following in Poitier’s footsteps: ‘I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I'd rather do, sir.’”
Njeri Mathis Rutledge, USA Today

“Ironically, as Poitier reached this career peak, his image was under siege by increasing militancy among African American audiences and critics who believed the movement toward racial integration had been overpowered by imperatives for Black nationalism. The late Clifford Mason, a Black cultural critic, wrote a scathing piece for the New York Times [in 1967], ‘Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?’ which, while acknowledging Poitier's heroic efforts to break down Hollywood's once-impregnable race barriers and giving him props for being allowed to slap back at a White southern aristocrat in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ insisted that Poitier has over 20 years, ‘play[ed] essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.’…

“More than 50 years have passed and, saying the least, you don't hear such things being said about Poitier or his oeuvre. That's partly because Poitier, instead of retreating from or reacting badly to such criticism, continued to broaden both his movie image and his professional palate, giving Black audiences a romantic comedy of their own with 1968's ‘For Love of Ivy,’ playing a militant revolutionary in 1969's ‘The Lost Man,’ and directing his own movies, notably with a tandem of comedies written by award-winning playwright Richard Wesley, 1974's ‘Uptown Saturday Night’ and 1975's ‘Let's Do It Again,’ which became ‘crossover’ hits in their amiable depictions of working class Black life.”
Gene Seymour, CNN

“[Poitier] found himself in a rare and difficult position. Many in the African-American community would have liked Poitier to use his status as the first — indeed, for some time, the only — leading black actor in an angrily politicized fashion. However, he refused to do so. Poitier explicitly stated that he was a supporter of Martin Luther King’s creed of non-violence, and an opponent of Malcolm X’s less decorous beliefs… And he refused to kowtow to those who would pigeonhole him. In 1968, he became publicly irritated at a press conference, when virtually every question seemed to revolve around his race…

“[Poitier] was outspoken in his loathing of institutional racism and segregation, and campaigned both publicly and privately against discrimination. But he also knew that the roles he took were scrutinized both for their quality and for his status as a black actor. As he said in 1967, ‘If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. …But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game. Not when there is only one Negro actor working in films with any degree of consistency.’”
Alexander Larman, Spectator World

“The reason he became the first black Hollywood star — and, until Denzel Washington, its greatest — wasn’t his ability to serve as a plaster saint. If it had been, he would have quickly turned into a respectable bore, the kind of figure who receives polite applause because the applause makes the applauder feel good…

“Rather, it was the way he personified the barely suppressed anger at the daily injustices that came with being a black man in America that made him haunting, compelling, inspiring and enormously sympathetic. Poitier’s characters didn’t accept the social circumstances that held them back. They tried to make better lives for themselves in spite of the prejudice directed against them, even as they resented the unfair obstacles placed in their path.”
John Podhoretz, New York Post

“Many are familiar with ‘the slap heard round the world’ — the scene in which Sidney’s character slaps a bigoted cotton plantation owner after the owner slaps him first. But as the director Norman Jewison said, ‘this was not a period film. It was taking place in the present time.’ To his point, James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, was shot by a white man the year before the film’s release. Both King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated the year after. This was the environment in which Sidney dared to challenge what it meant to be Black in Hollywood and by extension what it meant to be Black in America. Such courage cannot be underestimated in considering his career.”
LZ Granderson, Los Angeles Times

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