Old Hollywood: Sidney Poitier and the Civil Rights Era

by Linsey Satterthwaite on 20/02/2015


Cinema has always been seen as a mirror to society, the changes, the fears, the angers and the themes of a nation are often represented and reflected on the big screen as a window to political and cultural shifts. Selma, a film based on the 1965 voting march led by Martin Luther King, recently landed in cinemas; a film whose themes of blatant social injustice felt sadly more topical than they could have envisaged during the time of its making. David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King in Selma, has been vocal about the racial inequality in the movie industry, something that seemed to be reinforced by his subsequent baffling snub in the Oscars for best actor. The struggle to redress the balance for black actors and recent events in the U.S. serve as a reminder to an actor, who came to cinema in the era of Selma, who through the roles he portrayed created a legacy of progression and inspiration.

Sidney Poitier came from humble beginnings, the son of tomato farmers who lived on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Born prematurely on 20 February 1927 whilst his parents were selling tomatoes in Miami, Sidney was not expected to survive yet he returned to Cat Island with his parents where he would spend his childhood. As he was born in Miami, Sidney had entitlement to US citizenship so at the age of 15, he joined his brother who lived there but he found the transition hard. Hailing from an all black community Poitier struggled with the mentality of the south and after one summer washing dishes, he left for New York.

With a passion to exist beyond menial work Poitier auditioned for the American Negro theatre but he was rejected because of his strong Caribbean accent and his poor reading skills. Down but not out, Poitier worked on his accent and refined his reading ability and six months later he was accepted at the theatre and worked hard to dispel the lack of faith his peers appeared to have in him.

Early roles came in No Way Out (1950) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) but it was his role in The Defiant Ones (1958) that saw Poitier take on a role that tapped into the racial tensions in society, which earned him an Oscar nomination in the process. The film depicted Poitier and Tony Curtis as escaped convicts, chained together; they must work as a team in order to survive, the plot serving as a metaphor for the race relations affecting America.

In 1963 Poitier starred in a film that would make cinematic history; Lilies of the Field, a story of a travelling handyman named Homer, who, after breaking down in his car in rural Arizona, finds himself welcomed by a group of nuns. Despite clashing with the mother superior the nuns are convinced that Homer has been sent from God to help them build a chapel and despite different beliefs these two worlds collide to find acceptance and unlikely friendship. Poitier’s humorous and touching performance led to him becoming the first black man to win a Best Actor Oscar, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and his win was just that little bit more poignant for a film whose message was how a multicultural and multi or no faith society – white, black, Hispanic, Mexican and German – could peaceably thrive.

Not everyone was enamoured with Poitier, some accused him of appeasing the white male rather than contesting the existing status and that he was too much of a nice guy, when some felt that a more radical symbol should blaze onto the screen. Yet Poitier was more aware of the need for activism than many gave him credit for.

1967’s In the Heat of the Night featured Poitier as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who investigates a murder in a racist small town in Mississippi and contained an infamous scene that almost didn’t happen. Originally in the scene between Tibbs and the racist plantation owner Mr Endicott (Larry Gates), Endicott was to strike Tibbs without retaliation but Poitier called for changes to be made so that Tibbs strikes him back. The producers initially would not agree to this but on Poitier’s insistence, the scene was altered and remains one of the most electrifying moments in cinema within the context of the time. Anti-war protests and civil rights marches were lining the streets and this politically charged moment echoed the feelings of many in America who felt the North/South divide long after the abolition of slavery. It also held special resonance as the year that In the Heat of Night won the Best Picture accolade, the Academy Awards ceremony was postponed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Sidney Poitier would continue his career with a string of films that would challenge the stereotypes of the black male that had previously been seen, he would represent the system but also try to subvert it at the same time. In To Sir with Love (1967) Poitier played a teacher assigned to a predominantly white London school and in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) he had to meet the parents of his white fiancée who struggle with the idea of an interracial relationship.

Poitier brought sophistication and dignity to the characters he played, commanding the screen and the respect of his contemporaries. At the 2014 Oscars, Poitier presented the Best Director award with Angelina Jolie, where he received a standing ovation and to which Jolie declared to Poitier ‘we are in your debt’.

Hollywood recognised the contribution and influence that Poitier has given to cinema yet there are many more steps to be taken for black actors today to have opportunities to play the diverse characters that Poitier had access to, the exciting opportunities that Selma afforded this year. The system cannot just congratulate those who stick within the status quo, it also needs to evolve, with courage. As Poitier himself said in his memoir, A Measure of a Man ‘we are all somewhat courageous and we are also considerably cowardly, life is simply an unending struggle against those imperfections’. A happy 88th birthday to a principled and courageous man.

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