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When Sidney Poitier died last week, I asked some friends who are Black and roughly my own age -- old enough to have first seen Poitier as children growing up in the 50s, 60s or 70s -- for their reflections and memories of him.
What stood out were not so much the poignant tributes, remembrances and accolades. It was how many people referred to him as "Mr. Poitier." It was sweetly reverential, and it said everything about who Sidney Poitier was and what he meant to Black Americans.
My pal, Leonard Garner, Jr., wrote, "Mr. Sidney Poitier has left us and I wonder how many of the younger generation truly understand how powerful a presence he is in world cinema. I was nine years old when my parents took me to see A Raisin in the Sun and it was a life-changing experience for me... His dignity, strength and charisma were almost startling. The idea of a young Black kid dreaming of a career in Hollywood didn't feel like an impossible dream anymore."
Lenny went on to become a successful television director.
"Mr. Poitier set his eyes toward his dreams and they became reality," Brenda Hiler said. "He walked with grace, dignity and honor, blazing the trail for others. Mr. Poitier was more than a hero, he was a change agent."
The day he died, I read a quote from Cornel West, the eminent African-American Studies scholar at Princeton, likening Poitier to Jackie Robinson.
West called him "the towering American artist of African descent in the history of film."
Wesley Morris, an African-American critic at large for The New York Times, asserted that the actor was as important a figure in the "odyssey of freedom and equality for Black Americans -- for personhood" as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
"He was the star we desperately needed him to be," wrote Morris.
I agree. Poitier really does belong in that pantheon. It is ironic that in the 70s, as the Black Power movement became ascendant, Poitier would be criticized for not being sufficiently militant.
Sidney Poitier's acting career spanned nearly six decades, so he is well known to generations of Americans. But you had to be a Black kid in the late 50s to early 70s to have personally and fully experienced what Poitier signified, how profoundly influential he was, and to know just how much he stirred and inspired racial pride and self-esteem. The subtext of racial discrimination has always been to tell Black people that they are not as good as White people. Poitier practically shouted: Yes, I am! Yes, we are!
"In the New York Times obituary, they say he was simmering with repressed anger," said my friend, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, now in his 70s. "That's the way I was, even as a kid. I think Black people all over America felt the same -- simmering with repressed anger. His character embodied that and Black people seemed to relate to that."
Context matters. Before Poitier, from the earliest days of moving pictures, Black people were almost exclusively portrayed -- when we were portrayed -- as villainous, menacing, comical, stupid, subservient and/or childlike. In rare instances, a Black character in a film was allowed to display a modicum of humanity, even nobility but, even then, it was often in the role of loyal sidekick to the White protagonist.
"There hadn't been anyone like him," Herbert said. "The biggest thing was that he infused Black characters with dignity. Before that, it was mostly humiliation."
Poitier once told an interviewer that when he broke into acting "the kind of Negro played on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling butlers really misfits."
He added, "I chose not to be a party to the stereotyping."
More context. When Lilies of the Field came out in 1963. there were no Black leading men or women in the movies or on television. There were no Black television news anchors or Black network news reporters. There were no Black governors, senators or big city mayors.
Frank Williams, executive director of the White Plains, N.Y. Youth Service Bureau, grew up in segregated Mississippi in the 60s.
"We had very few positive Black images on television or in the movies," Frank said. "I remember coming home from school and watching reruns of Amos 'n' Andy and Tarzan. To say we were depicted poorly is putting it mildly. As a young boy. I remember going to the movies to see A Raisin in the Sun, A Patch of Blue and Lilies of the Field starring Sidney Poitier. Movie theaters were segregated back then. It was great going to the movies to see someone who looked like you acting. Mr. Poitier was a trailblazer."
There's a scene early in Lilies of the Field when Poitier's character, Homer Smith. is trying to teach English to the German nuns he is helping. They don't understand the word black. He points to the black stove, then he rubs his forearm with one finger and says: "my skin is black." In 1963, African-Americans were still called Negroes. Calling someone black was often intended to insult or demean. What Poitier was saying, what he was doing -- embracing his blackness -- was as subtle as it was groundbreaking.
Four years later, he played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia homicide detective visiting a small town in Mississippi. In In The Heat of the Night. Poitier was tough, proud, fierce and smart. This one character upended, no, shattered the awful stereotypes of Blacks in movies.
The movie, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards the following year, has many great moments -- it's a terrific movie; still holds up -- but probably none was more shocking or more thrilling for Black viewers than when a white racist slaps Tibbs, and Tibbs promptly slaps him back.
"Blacks all across America cheered that," Bob Herbert said. "Nobody had ever seen anything like that before."
To young Black males in the 1960s, Sidney Poitier was a heroic role model.
Growing up in Queens, N.Y., James DeGraffendreidt, Jr., a lawyer and retired CEO of Washington Gas, said his parents made sure Poitier's films were required viewing.
"Whether in the context of weighty discussions or light-hearted comedic banter, Sidney Poitier consistently found a way to be seen by a culture dominated by racism as a person who commanded respect," he said.
To young Black females, he was a heartthrob with intelligence, grace and elegance.
Elize Brown was 5 years old when Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar. She recalls walking into the room where her parents were watching the awards show on TV.
"I was mesmerized by the color of his skin," she remembers. "I stared at his face on the TV for a bit and then walked up to the TV and tried to kiss the screen."
Kathy Jo Williams said, "Seeing that Poitier eye twinkle made my prepubescent heart flutter. His odd facial expressions telegraphed that he was one step ahead of everyone else in his thinking and in his actions, that he knew the game you were playing, that he understood the insecurity of their prejudices, but he was not going to let their shortcomings thwart his progress. He exuded the confidence that I wanted to have"
Like James’s parents, my mother and father, both from the segregated South, took my brother and me to Sidney Poitier movies, starting with Lilies of the Field. I watched it again this past weekend, for the first time in many years. It’s a gentle, feel-good movie, even verging on mawkishness. Its depiction of Mexican-Americans as mute and deferential is offensive. But it has a subtle depth around the issue of race.
Two scenes resonated with me on this viewing. In the first, Poitier's Homer Smith is gazing at a bulldozer while two of the nuns he's helping meet with a construction supplier about getting more materials for the chapel they want to build (I should say, that they want Homer to build).
The white owner goes out to talk to Homer just as Homer wheels and walks past him. Poitier’s stride is confident, even a little swaggering as he buttons his white jean jacket, his shoulders thrust back.
The white man says to his back, “Hey, boy.”
Poitier turns around, and then does a quick double take to see who the white guy is calling a boy. Surely not him. Poitier communicates this in an expression you see not even two seconds. It is a fleeting, quizzical look that says: I know you’re not talking to me like that.
They talk. Then, as the manager walks away, Homer calls out, with an edge in his deep voice, “Hey, boy.” When the owner turns back, Homer asks if he has a job opening. He needs the job desperately, but first he has to balance the scale and make sure this guy knows there is a line he cannot cross. Homer gets hired. In The Heat Of The Night wasn’t the first movie in which a Sidney Poitier character stood his ground.
In a later scene, Homer’s growing frustration with Mother Maria, the stern head nun, boils over. He wants to be treated decently, just to be thanked for the work he’s been doing for free, to be respected as a person.
“I’m tired of being made to feel small,” he says with, well, simmering anger.
I got the sense that this was not just Homer Smith speaking to Mother Maria, or even the words of the screenwriter who penned them. To me, it was Mr. Poitier himself talking. He was speaking to and speaking out for Black Americans.
Cover photo credit: Getty Images