Sydney Poitier: class, spirit and dignity

By Elwood Watson

The incomparable Sidney Poitier left this Earth this month, and it’s virtually impossible to detail the impact he had on both the world of cinema and society at large.

When Poitier received an honorary Oscar at the 2002 annual Oscars for his monumental contributions to the motion picture industry, he reveled in such honor with the refinement and sophistication that had been his trademark since his first foray into the Hollywood community.

He was the first black man to receive the Best Actor Oscar in 1963 for his role as well-rounded handyman Homer Smith in the movie “Lillies of the Field.” Poitier played the traveling jack-of-all-trades who stops at an Arizona farm in the desert to get water for his car and ends up offering his carpentry skills to a group of nuns.

Poitier’s films are considered among the most distinguished ever made by Hollywood. He was one of the most prominent actors of the 1960s and became the number one US box office star in 1967 with three smash hits – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?””In The Heat of The Night” and “To Sir With Love”. Very few actors of any generation have reached or accomplished such a level of notoriety.

At his death, tributes abound. “He was a sweet man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years,” Oscar winner Denzel Washington told The Hollywood Reporter. Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry wrote on social media “the grace and class this man has shown throughout his life, the example he has set for me, not only as a man black but as a human being, will never be forgotten”.

“To me the tallest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen,” Oprah Winfrey wrote, calling Poitier a “friend, brother, confidant” and “teacher of wisdom.”

In the widespread reactions both inside and outside of Hollywood, there was no doubt that the moving, sophisticated and revolutionary presence of a Hollywood giant had been silenced. For the most part, the films he starred in frequently tackled deeply controversial and intensely complex issues that typically eluded most other black actors of his day.

Outspoken, fearless, forceful, and unapologetic, Poitier skillfully dissected the undeniable impositions, indignities, and injustices that have been and still are perpetrated against Black Americans and other people of color in his work. Without hesitation, he informed Americans of the rich and generous history of people of African descent. In all aspects of his work, he demonstrated the routine resilience, pioneering spirit, and patience that has always been a staple of American culture when it comes to its citizens of color, especially black Americans.

In his films, Poitier skillfully presented the dignity and pride of the black experience to the world. In particular, he told black men that they were beautiful, intelligent, resilient and cultured, and did so with unmistakable and unabashed candor. This was evident by the intelligence with which he chose his roles. He was very astute about the culture of America he was performing for.

Several of his cinematic choices earned him the ire of some blacks and more radical whites, who felt that he personified the image of a “safe, non-threatening, accommodating nigger”. The late film critic Pauline Kael wrote that “Sidney Poitier always seems to be playing the American boy next door. Such an image is somewhat tiring.” In a more scathing acid review, New York Times film critic Clifford Mason wrote, “He remains unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.”

Critics aside, even his staunchest detractors couldn’t deny Poitier’s undisputed power on screen, however subtle or blatant his acting.

Race, class, religion, sexual politics, and other dynamics have consistently rocked American society, and Poitier, with his sharp precision and occasional humorous wit, approached these issues fearlessly. Such thoughtful comments have prompted segments of American society to engage in serious reflection and soul-searching. Indeed, his demeanor was so sophisticated that many people eagerly followed his every move.

Sidney Poitier was one of a kind. His level of talent, intelligence, insight, skill and other assets was undeniably admirable. The immense outpouring of admiration and respect he received was well deserved. He was a legend during his time on Earth. We will miss him. May he rest in peace.

Elwood Watson is Professor of History, Black Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and speaker.

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