Friday, June 9

Sidney Poitier: a natural movie star who quietly pioneered a revolution | Sidney Poitier

FOr in postwar America, Sidney Poitier became something of a black Cary Grant: a strikingly handsome and well-spoken Bahamian-American actor. He was a natural movie star who projected passion, but tempered by a kind of refinement and restraint that white viewers found very comforting. Poitier was elegant, manly, serene, with innate dignity and a tremendous screen presence. He also had a beautiful, melodious voice, the result of his childhood in the Bahamas, and after struggling for the first few years in New York, trying to succeed as an actor and privately studying the voices of mellifluous white radio presenters. He was a classic and traditional actor in many ways, following in the footsteps of Paul robeson Y Canada Lee, but eminently moldable in a new generation of modern roles.

Almost all of his famous film roles are defined by race and racial difference, particularly that extraordinary trio of films that came out in one year, 1967. In For the lord, with love, he was the visiting black teacher in London swing who communicates with children by challenging them to be adults. In Guess who’s coming to dinner he is the black man who wants to marry a young white woman, in a United States where this was still illegal in many southern states. (This proposal causes excruciating discontent in his fiancee’s liberal parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.) In the heat of the night He was the black homicide detective forced to help a bigoted white cop, played by Rod Steiger.

Watch To Sir With Love trailer

Poitier was always admired for his style and intelligence and an instinctive and classic technique. It was a class act. But as the 1960s unfolded, in a new era of black power and radicalism, Poitier found himself very old-fashioned, ridiculed as a pseudo-white sold out, the safe choice for a reactionary film industry that would only tolerate this guy. Tom so beautifully spoken. The black playwright Clifford Mason wrote a New York Times article furiously denouncing Poitier, stating that “artistic NAACPism is all that this whole period of Sidney Poitier’s filmmaking stands for.” This new mood, and the feeling that there were no good roles for a middle-aged black man, caused Poitier to withdraw from acting, reverting to low-key character roles in the late 1980s (including, inevitably, a performance as Nelson Mandela in a television movie opposite Michael Caine as FW de Klerk). But he became a well-regarded director, in charge of the great commercial success Go mad, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. He also directed a few films with Bill Cosby, a professional association whose embarrassments he can hardly be blamed for now.

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Watch the scene from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Poitier’s advance was No exit in 1950, a black crime film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, in which he is the black hospital doctor who has to treat a white racist bully (a signature Richard Widmark twist). Five years later, at the ripe age of 28, Poitier was cast as a troubled teenager in Slate jungle, the scowling “theme movie” about teenage crime and inner city schools, with the book later finalized by his black teacher in To Sir With Love. It was completely in line with his later career that he provided the chill of blackness, but he was also the reliable good guy. Race was also a factor in Edge of town (1957), in which he plays a calm and confident dockworker who becomes something of a mentor figure for a troubled guy on the run from the military police (a young John Cassavetes). Poiter’s frankness and smiling sympathy in this film showed him at his best.

But it was in The challengers (1958) who was more uninhibited, as the black prisoner chained to Tony Curtis’ bigoted criminal, escaped together, realized they had to work together, and eventually became friends.

Then came the movie for which he became the first black man to win the Oscar for best actor: Lilies of the field (1964), a regular young man who is tricked into doing manual jobs for some expatriate German nuns, finally builds his chapel and achieves a mysterious, if sentimental kind of redemption for himself and for them. It is a film with grace and charm, and obviously it is not about race. Three years later came that annus mirabilis in which his three great films were released, and then the discontent began.

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Looking back, some of Poitier’s performances seem a bit tame, and the fact that for so long he seemed to be the only black actor in Hollywood left him exposed. He was hurt by Clifford Mason’s article and even more upset by John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, based on the true story of a young black con man who infiltrated the apartments and lives of wealthy whites. by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Some critics found this an evil parable of the way Poitier himself had been allowed to become a guest in the white world of American culture.

There is no question that you could be a bit of a controlling excessive in your choice of roles. Disconcertingly, he refused to play Othello – a role in which he surely would have been tremendous – because of the negative image of blacks he promoted, preferring projects such as his sonorous LP recording of Plato readings.

Watch Sidney Poitier’s Oscar Acceptance Speech

But in the 21st century, Poitier’s achievements have been reassessed. After all, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was about interracial marriage and sex, a subject that modern Hollywood now runs a mile from. Poitier approached it with dignity and frankness. If it was exclusive and ambitious, so what? That was the reality; He connected with something white Hollywood rarely recognized: the vast swath of America’s rising educated class, people who would always face insidious prejudice and condescension.

Poitier created a space for African-American acting that made possible the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, and many more. The richness, strength and immediacy of his performances in Edge of the City, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night make him a screen pioneer and Hollywood legend.

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