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Sidney Poitier changed movies, and changed lives

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Sidney Poitier made history, on the screen and off. He opened up possibilities for generations of Black actors and Black audiences.
NEW YORK — We go to movies not just to escape, but to discover. We might identify with the cowboy or the runaway bride or the kid who befriends a creature from another planet. To see yourself on screen has long been another way of knowing you exist. Sidney Poitier, who died Thursday at 94, was the rare performer who really did change lives, who embodied possibilities once absent from the movies. His impact was as profound as Method acting or digital technology, his story inseparable from the story of the country he emigrated to as a teenager.”What emerges on the screen reminds people of something in themselves, because I’m so many different things,” he wrote in his memoir “The Measure of a Man,” published in 2000. “I’m a network of primal feelings, instinctive emotions that have been wrestled with so long they’re automatic.”Poitier made Hollywood history, by breaking from the stereotypes of bug-eyed entertainers, and American history, by appearing in films during the 1950s and 1960s that paralleled the growth of the civil rights movement. As segregation laws were challenged and fell, Poitier was the performer to whom a cautious Hollywood turned for stories of progress, a bridge to the growing candor and variety of Black filmmaking today. He was the escaped Black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in “The Defiant Ones.” He was the courtly office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in “A Patch of Blue.” He was the handyman in “Lilies of the Field” who builds a church for a group of nuns. In one of the great roles of stage or screen, he was the ambitious young man whose dreams clashed with those of other family members in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”Poitier not only upended the kinds of movies Hollywood made, but how they were filmed. For decades, Black and white actors had been shot with similar lighting, leading to an unnatural glare in the faces of Black performers. On the 1967 production “In the Heat of the Night,” cinematographer Haskell Wexler adjusted the lighting for Poitier so the actor’s features were as clear as those of white cast members. The long-running debate over Hollywood diversity often turns to Poitier. With his handsome, flawless face, intense stare and disciplined style, Poitier was for years not just the most popular Black movie star, but the only one; his unique appeal brought him burdens familiar to Jackie Robinson and others who broke color lines. He faced bigotry from whites and accusations of compromise from the Black community. Poitier was held, and held himself, to standards well above his white peers. He refused to play cowards or cads and took on characters, especially in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” of almost divine goodness. He developed an even, but resolved and occasionally humorous persona crystallized in his most famous line – “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” – from “In the Heat of the Night.””All those who see unworthiness when they look at me and are given thereby to denying me value – to you I say, ‘I’m not talking about being as good as you. I hereby declare myself better than you,'” he wrote in “The Measure of a Man.”In 1964, he became the first Black performer to win the best actor Oscar, for “Lilies of the Field.” He peaked in 1967 with three of the year’s most notable movies: “To Sir, With Love,” in which he starred as a school teacher who wins over his unruly students at a London secondary school; “In the Heat of the Night,” as the determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” as the prominent doctor who wishes to marry a young white woman he only recently met, her parents played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their final film together. In 2009 President Barack Obama, whose own steady bearing was sometimes compared to Poitier’s, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying that the actor “not only entertained but enlightened… revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”Poitier was not as engaged politically as his friend and contemporary Harry Belafonte, leading to occasional conflicts between them. But he was active in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and other civil rights events and even helped deliver tens of thousands of dollars to civil rights volunteers in Mississippi in 1964, around the same time that three workers had been murdered.

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