By now I'm sure you've read numerous articles, tweets and headlines about the late, great and prolific force that was Sir Sidney Poitier. (In case you've been living under a rock, Poitier died at age 94 Friday, January 7, 2021). In those articles you've no doubt read that Poitier was a great actor, he was. That he was the 1st Black man to win the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Actor, he was. As well as that he changed the ways in which Black men had and could be portrayed on film (see below) by stepping away from the stereotypical roles that befell the black film stars before him and instead giving us images of well spoken, articulate doctors, lawyers, police officers, good fathers, etc...,this is true. What may have been left out of those narratives however, is that Sidney Poitier did all of this not just as a Black man but as a dark skinned Black man and that matters. I'm not saying it should matter but it did (and does) matter.
House slaves vs field slaves, paper bag tests and blue vein societies have all been used to divide Black people based on the hue of their skin; Almost exclusively under the premise that the lighter the skin the better or as my great grandmother put it, "closer to White is always right." Studies have shown that both Blacks and Whites often ascribe more positive characteristics (Intelligence, honesty, courage, etc...) to lighter skin people while attributing more negative or sinister elements (Shifty, dangerous, unattractive, etc...) to those of darker shades.
When Sidney Poitier came on screen, however, he put those stereotypes to bed. Poitier was by no means the first Black male movie star nor the first with dark skin. Lincoln Perry better known as Stepin Fetchit, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson were all dark skinned Black males who had all achieved mainstream big screen success prior to the arrival of Sidney Poitier; Yet these stars were derided by a portion of the Black community who felt they were "sellouts" for their passive, stereotypical or even ignorant portrayals of Black men (conforming to the negative stereotypes many already associated with dark skin). While others like Noble Johnson, Canada Lee and Paul Robeson attempted to show Black men in a better light but were mainly regulated to low budget race films (marketed to Black audiences), foreign films with little or no distribution in the U.S. and marginal supporting roles in mainstream films that often boarder the types of impressions they spent their careers fighting to avoid.
Sidney Poitier seemingly did the impossible in that he was able to bridge being acceptable and nonthreatening to White audiences without loosing the respect and admiration of Black audiences. This bridging of the two is precisely what made it possible for him to become the first Black male marquee box office star playing non-stereotypical roles and later allowed him to star in films where he
was able to directly confront and challenge White people on their racism (as you can see below). Only a star like Sidney, whom White people had deemed acceptable, could get a way with such a thing. Only a star like Sidney, whom Black people did not view as an 'Uncle Tom' or a "sellout", could get away with such a thing. The fact that he had managed to do such a thing, overcoming the negativity associated with the shade of his skin
by both races, is as remarkable as it is
See below my ten (10) favorite Sidney Poitier film roles in no particular order.
Uptown Saturday Night, 1974
Sidney was the top Black actor of the 1950s and 1960s but by the 1970s as a younger generation of Black moviegoers came onto the scene the very type of bridging that made him popular then was the main source of their criticism. He was now seen as to permissive chasing White audiences and not militant enough for that generation of young Blacks. Sidney answered not by taming down his blackness but by embracing it with films like Buck and the Preacher and this 1974 gem, Uptown Saturday Night. Co-starring Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Harry Belafonte, Flip Wilson and the underrated Rosiland Cash. To see Mr. Mainstream Sidney Poitier, often the only Black face in his films, in a Blaxploitation style (it was still a big budget studio film) film set in an all Black environment (Harlem) and co-starring prominent, younger non mainstream Black celebrities like Pryor and Wilson was a welcomed change. Poitier still possesses his trademark elegance (which some maintain is out of place for the environment in which the film is centered) but infuses it with the hallmarks of Black life. It is a huge change of pace for Poitier, a major hit that led to two "sequels"(see below) and very funny.
2. Lets Do It Again, 1975
This is the 1975 followup to the hugely successful Uptown Saturday Night. (There is debate on if this is a sequel or not but since it does not follow the plot of Uptown and the characters have different names I refer to it as a follow up not a sequel). This New Orleans set film pairs Poitier once again with Cosby and this time they bring along John Amos and the then very popular Jimmie "JJ" Walker both stars on the hit sitcom Good Times. Once again, set in a Black world the plot involves two poor workers attempting to rig a boxing match to make money for their struggling fraternity club. This film also reached a younger audience that had been critical of Poitier and was a big hit and lead to another followup, A Piece of the Action two years later. The plot is predictable but it's funny (not as funny as the original) and its influence was huge rapper Notorious B.I.G. took his nickname, Biggie Smalls, from Calvin Lockhart's character in this film while Diddy's former valet, Fanzworth Bentley, took his name from Jimmie Walker's character. As a bonus I think I love this film so much because I absolutely adore the theme song of the same name. Written by Curtis Mayfield the song was a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard R&B charts. Most likely if you haven't seen the film you've heard the song if not in its original form as the basis for hits like Xscape's Just Kicking It and Ice Cube's It Was a Good Day, take a listen.
3. No Way Out, 1950
This was Sidney Poitier's first starring film role (only his second film role ever) and man did he hit it out the park! Kidnappings, race riots and beatings: Sidney has to endure them all in this drama. Playing a novice Black doctor he is forced to treat two racist brothers. When one of the brothers dies during a procedure everyone is quick to blame the Black doctor even his mentor who thinks his inexperience caused the death. Believing that his course of action was correct he attempts to get an autopsy performed but the other brother refuses and convinces his late brothers equally racist wife to refuse as well. Eventually, Poitier turns himself in for murder but the twist is in doing so, the Prosecutor orders a full autopsy to prove if he truly killed him. Not that the answer matters as the man's brother has already decided to get revenge and kill the doctor. Was Poitier correct? Did he act prematurely? Does it matter cause will he even live to see a trial? Stream the film and find out you will not be disappointed.
4. For Love of Ivy, 1968
Sidney Poitier's Jack is blackmailed into dating the titular Ivy (played by stage vet Abbey Lincoln) in this film. Ivy is the maid for a wealthy White family, led by actor Carroll O'Connor before his Archie Bunker days (O'Connor would also go on to star in the television version of In The Heat of the Night based on the Sidney Poitier film of the same name). The White family is despondent after Ivy announces she is quitting to go to secretarial school so she can have a better life. Even though they "love her like family" they do not want her to do better for herself if it means leaving so the teenagers (including a very young Beau Bridges) so they concoct the blackmail scheme that unites Jack and Ivy . You know the rest: eventually he actually falls for her, she finds out about the blackmail, dumps him and that brings you to the dramatic scene above where he chases her down and confesses his true love for her, yes predictable I know. Yet, I love this movie because of the way it showcases Black love a rarity at this time. No ghettos and garbage men here (i.e. Claudine) Jack is sophisticated, classy and rich. They do normal date activities like dinner at fancy Japanese restaurants no special ethnic dates to emphasis they are a Black couple. No, they're just a couple and even have unmarried sex. Ivy is a maid but she has higher ambitions for herself and she owns them, so often in these types of movies the woman doesn't know she wants better until a man tells her she wants or deserves better. Jack calls out her white employers for their lack of support for Ivy's greater ambitions and questions their "love" for her. I even like how in the end the Beau Bridges character is driven by love, for a Black woman that he calls beautiful on film screens in 1968! A beautiful film I only wish Poitier had gotten to do more romantic leading man roles of this types.
5. A Patch of Blue, 1965
In this black and white gem, Poitier plays a gentle man named Gordon who befriends a lovely but sheltered blind White girl whom who he visits in the park daily. Eventually, she falls in love and wishes to Marry Gordon. Assuming she is unaware of his race he explains to her that they cannot be married but she tells him that she knows he is Black and doesn't care. Gordon politely puts her off once again before sending her off to a special school for the blind he arranged. As great as Poitier is in this film my favorite part of this movie is the indomitable Shelley Winters who won an Oscar for playing the evil prostitute Rose-Ann in this film. I had not been familiar with her or her work when I first saw this film but soon became a major fan.
6. In The Heat of The Night, 1967
As great as this entire movie is-and it is a great movie-its impact can really be summed up by two of the best and most famous scenes in film history. In many ways this was Sidney Poitier's answer for all of those who accused him of being to docile in his roles as it relates to White people. In memorable scene #1, Poitier's detective Virgil Tibbs outsmarts the chief of a small Mississippi town, played by the brilliant Rod Steiger, in front of his deputies and a murder victim's widow, also played brilliantly by formerly blacklisted actress Lee Grant. Upset but unable to negate Tibb's logic he resorts to personally attacking Tibb's name saying, it's a "funny name for a nigger boy that comes from Philadelphia!" Then he mockingly asks, " What do they call you up there?" Without hesitation he responds, "They call me mister Tibbs!" It is a seminal moment because it signifies a change, Tibbs is putting the Chief in his place and he refuses to show deference to someone who has just insulted him, White or not. He demands his respect in that moment and that is impactful for Black audiences who for to long had to be respectful to Whites in the midst of being disrespected.
Memorable scene #2 happens a bit later, when Detective Tibbs confronts the very wealthy and very racist Endicott about the murder. Furious at the idea of being questioned by a Black man Endicott (played by Larry Gates who I personally remember from his years on the Soap Opera Guiding Light) slaps Tibbs forcefully across the face instinctively Tibbs slaps him back just as hard. If you need wonder just how shocking that event was look no further than in the background where you will see the absolutely shocked face of the great Jester Hairston playing Endicot's butler. That slap was from one character to another but it reverberated around the world. It represented the frustrations of an entire community of people. This film won Rod Steiger the Oscar for Best actor as well best picture. It was followed by two sequels, a long running hit television series of the same name and a hit theme song of the same name by Ray Charles.
7. Paris Blues, 1961
I know that people have mixed feelings about this film but I enjoy it. The main source of contention tends to be that the great talents of Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll are regulated to the b-story. I share this concern but the film is still great. First, I am happy to see Poitier in a romantic situation, often he has no love interest and sometimes no other meaningful Black characters at all. Here, is paired with the formidable and beautiful Carroll; The two get to take loving romantic walks around Paris showcasing the beauty of the city behind them. These two have great chemistry (as they should considering they would soon begin an intense extramarital affair in real life) and you find yourself rooting for their love to happen, over Poitier's reluctance. Secondly, this film addresses the difference in how Blacks are treated in Paris versus the United States and not subtly it conveys it directly. Carroll's Connie is a believer that Blacks should do the work, they owe it to the community to fight for and make life better for other Blacks in the U.S. On the other hand, Poitier's Eddie never wants to return to America as it would mean giving up the freedom from racism he enjoys in Paris. In his view he's not responsible for anyone other than himself. It's a poignant conversation that weaves itself organically through the film. Thirdly, I love that Carroll plays a middle class educated Black woman and she gets to dress the part. Carroll, from a fashion perspective, goes toe to toe and maybe even outshines co-star Joanne Woodward. Carroll is so striking even Paul Newman makes mention of how beautiful she is in the opening scene above. In a nudge towards interracial romance he flirts with her, when she responds that she is waiting on her White friend (a hint that she thinks he should be flirting with the White woman not her) Newman responds with the classic line, “Might be hard to find. All you white girls look alike.” A clear reference that he (nor Paris) notices race just beauty.
8. Porgy and Bess, 1959
Another controversial choice, this movie was panned by many when it was released but the strength of Poitier's acting alone makes this one worthy of watching. Despite some missteps with the script how can you go wrong with an all star Black cast that includes the likes of Sidney Poiter, Dorothy Dandridge (The titular Porgy and Bess) Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and the fabulously underrated Brock Peters just to name a few. This cast, led chiefly by Poitier, does magic in front of the camera and makes you forgive the mistakes of a sometimes stereotypical script. Poitier plays a crippled beggar chasing after the beautiful and wild Bess throughout this film, a role different than he had ever played yet he makes us believe it, makes us feel it.
9. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967
I admit it I was never a huge fan of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I saw it several times, but it felt flat to me. I include it on this list because over the years I have grown to appreciate it more and well it's such a seminal role for Poitier how could you not include it? While not the first major studio hit film to deal with Interracial love or feature an interracial kiss (both belong to the 1957 film Island in the Sun) it was a landmark film due to its proximity to the United States Supreme Court case Loving vs Virginia which outlawed miscegenation laws that outlawed interracial marriage. It also dealt directly with marriage as opposed to Island in the Sun which featured only interracial love affairs. Not without controversy surprisingly the main sources of contention for this film came from the Black population. Many felt that Poitier's ivy-league educated, financially stable, well spoken, humanitarian, puritanical character was too perfect to represent the realty of Black people and interracial marriage. The perfectness of the character was intentional as the studio wanted the only reason her parents wouldn't like him was his race. Yet it didn't mirror real life, it felt phony to me and the message I got was if you are not absolutely perfect in every way imaginable with no flaws, vices or transgressions don't even think about marrying a White girl. Then I realized this film wasn't made for me it was made to appease a White audience and that's why it's brilliant. Lets face it, it was mainly White people who hated the idea of interracial marriage they were certainly the only ones who had the power to enshrine it in law and implement acts of violence when it was violated. This film was made to sway them, force them to listen to the words of Spencer Tracy and reexamine their own hearts and motives. It did that as it was a huge hit even in the South. Katherine Hepburn won a best actress Academy Award for her role and the film has gone down in history as one of the greatest of all times. I also have to give credit to Isabel Sanford who is fierce as the sassy, protective maid that doesn't trust Poitier and Beah Richards who is fabulous as she scolds everyone to remember what it's like to fall in love. Poitier holds his own here as well his scene with his father shows his great command of emotions even if I completely disagree with his words but I'll save that for another essay.
10. A Raisin in the Sun, 1961
Based on a play from Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry this film stars Poitier alongside Ruby Dee, Diana Sands and Claudia McNeil all of whom delivery strong performances in this 1961 black and white classic. Poitier plays the hard working ne'er-do-well Walter who has good intentions as he desperately wants a better life free from the crippling poverty that he has always known but his methods are questionable. Attempting to be a part of a get rich quick liquor store scheme Walter is ripped off as his partner, Willie, skips town with the family's entire savings. This leads to one of the most prominent scenes in the entire film and one of Poitier's best ever as an actor as he desperately screams after Willie not to have ripped him off. Somehow Poitier makes you feel the he
artbreak, desperation, sadness and stupidity all at the same time. Poitier transfixes you in the emotions and so even though he was foolish and irresponsible you find yourself heartbroken for Walter. To be able to do that is the hallmark of a good actor and the brilliance of Sidney Poitier.