youput the announcement of the death of Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier, i sent a tweet which featured my favorite photo of him. The photo in question shows a shirtless Poitier in dark sunglasses as Miles Davis on the cover of ‘Round About Midnight’, playing the saxophone alongside jazz musician Sonny Stitt, standing in the street, surrounded by a community. of appreciative viewers, also known as “the people.” The reason I like this photo so much is because it offers a more complex image of Poitier than had come to define him at the height of his Hollywood fame. I have never been able to confirm the context of this photo, but I always assumed it was taken while preparing for his role as an expat trumpeter in the film Paris Blues. However, whatever the circumstances, the image itself suggests an authenticity, a certain street cred that is much more complex than the suitably integrationist symbolism to which his personality has so often been reduced.
In the late 1960s, Sidney Poitier was the biggest box office attraction in America. With movies like In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his movies had become their own genre. Accomplishing this was no small feat. When Poitier began his career, most films with predominantly black actors were musicals. Black men who appeared in otherwise all-white movies tended to be portrayed as inarticulate, childish buffoons; Racial clowns who scratched when they weren’t itchy and laughed when nothing was amusing. Poitier’s ascent to the top of Hollywood Mountain changed this. He was often the only black person moving through hostile blanks. His refined, scholarly and dignified image contrasted with the flirtatiousness and buffoonery previously depicted by figures such as Stepin ‘Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Willie Best. Like many elite mid-century jazz musicians, Poitier wanted people to see him as an artist, not a stereotypical entertainer. And in this he succeeded.
When perhaps his most famous character, Virgil Tibbs of In the Heat of the Night, demanded that southern white racist cops put some respect on his behalf, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”, Poitier was like Muhammad Ali, who had demanded the same. thing in the ring and in real life. In the movie, Endicott’s character took offense at the fact that the “conceited” Tibbs had actually spoken to him as an equal, rather than as the obsequious, sycophantic fool he expected him to be. So, Endicott slaps Tibbs for stepping out of what he perceived as his place. But faster than the blink of an eye, Tibbs responded in kind, slapping the taste out of Endicott’s mouth, so to speak. The “Slap Heard Around the World,” this legendary cinematic moment in which Poitier’s stardom gave his character the opportunity to retaliate against a white male without fear of retaliation, proved that just because he was known for portraying to these gentlemen on the screen, he could still run his business, if need be.
Poitier’s image in film has often been associated with that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor the same year that King won the Nobel Prize. But in this case, when Tibbs slapped Endicott back, the character he would most associate with in the future proved that there were multiple layers to his complex personality. You may have remembered MLK, but in the late 1960s, when the civil rights movement was being challenged by the claims of the Black Power, Virgil Tibbs did not turn the other cheek. Here he had more in common with Malcolm X than with Dr. King, despite what his measured personality may have led some people to believe.
Watching In the Heat of the Night as a child left an indelible mark on my adult mind. Being a distinguished gentleman did not mean accepting humiliation, literally or figuratively. Demanding that those celluloid racists respect him and showing them that he could maneuver in a variety of ways told me that being whole and multi-dimensional, defying categorization, mixing supreme intellect with authenticity was the way to go. This is what Tibbs, Poitier’s greatest film character, and especially that photo of him playing the sax in his glasses, surrounded by blackness, came to represent.
Many years after I first saw Poitier in this groundbreaking film, I had the great pleasure of meeting him. In the late 1990s, Poitier was the commencement speaker at USC’s School of Motion Picture Arts, where I spent the last 30 years of my professional life. Seeing him as a child, the lonely black man navigating maze-like white spaces, was comparable to the work life I found myself living in the rarefied spaces of the academy. Exhibiting a chivalrous manner coexisted with the understanding that not everyone agreed that I really belonged to such an elitist space. Like Virgil Tibbs, he might be diplomatic, but as that hilarious malt liquor ad from the 1980s said: “Don’t let the mild taste fool you.”
Standing on the graduation stage in all academic garb, while putting a doctorate hood on a newly graduated PhD candidate, thinking about how the people who created all this higher education pomp and circumstance certainly never imagined that a cat like me I would be representing. In this way, I turned around to see Poitier approaching me, hand outstretched, smiling broadly. His words, “Nice to meet you, Dr” echoed when I shook his hand. While we were there, I absorbed the magnitude of the moment. He offered multiple compliments and jokes, as kind in life as his person. We share a knowing laugh. But this was Sidney Poitier, not Virgil Tibbs. He understood what all this meant, and so did I. Things that are often understood do not need to be articulated.
Sidney Poitier was a giant of American culture. He stands as one of the most important figures in Hollywood history, hands down. The monumental legacy of Poitier’s style is evident in those he influenced. Whether it’s the career of contemporary Hollywood royalty, Denzel Washington, or that of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. Sidney Poitier, the distinguished gentleman of cinema, was also innovative, inspiring, brilliant, complex and authentic. The era it represented is past, but the foundation it laid is one we are still building on. Rest in power!
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism