Sidney Poitier: With grace and grit

Film Society of Lincoln Center honors industry icon

“Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney. . .I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir. . .God bless you. . .”

When Denzel Washington made these remarks during his 2002 Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech, a great deal of his audience, and doubtless most people watching, held an appreciative memory of Sidney Poitier, whose princely figure had faded into the genteel role of elder statesman — a role whose latest honor includes the Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

It had, after all, been nearly 50 years since he’d begun his meteoric, sensational run at becoming Hollywood’s highest-grossing actor — all the more stunning because of his color, which critic Stanley Crouch describes “…as black as a Mississippi evening at the deep point of midnight.”

It’s hard therefore to recall the electrifying immediacy he brought to his roles through the ’50s, including “Cry, the Beloved Country,” “No Way Out” “Blackboard Jungle,” “The Defiant Ones” and “Edge of the City.” The swift, slashing intelligence, the clarity and precision of his style, the visceral power — no one had seen anything quite like it before. It was apparent even in the wry, smoldering figure who sat for a roundtable discussion for the National Archive shortly after the 1963 March on Washington, culminating in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

And that was another thing the audience vaguely recalled — Poitier’s crucial pioneer role in the Civil Rights movement. It hardy seems a coincidence that 1963 was the year he won the best actor Oscar for “Lilies in the Field.” He was outspoken, on the move. In ’67, he was the nation’s top box office draw in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night,” in which his slap on whitey was heard round the world.

But then the doors he helped open were flattened from three centuries of pent-up racial fury. The Black Panthers, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X, among other militants, seized headlines in the stampede. Burn, baby, burn! Detroit, Newark, Watts. Fire in the night mixed in the popular mind with the fire in Vietnam, which burned into the ’70s. The movies, the music, the theater and the headlines all shook with the raw power of black self-discovery.

Overnight, it seems, Sidney — no one else in the community owned the name — was history, and worse:

In a New York Times op-ed piece, playwright Clifford Mason called Poitier “a showcase nigger.” Overlooked was the racial suffering and poverty he’d experienced. The Klan tried to kidnap him in Florida. He worked as a dishwasher in New York and slept in a bus terminal toilet before he could acculturate his Bahamian accent to American theatrical speech.

Poitier was so wounded by the article, and the backlash it represented, that he exiled himself back to the Bahamas. When he returned, it was as a director. Though he’d appear sparingly before the camera into the new millennium, the hot filament at his core was extinguished.

All of Poitier’s portrayals had been deliberately blended into one: role model. The sharply expressive face smoothed into a judicious public mask. He grew in other areas instead, as director, writer, thinker and international humanitarian.

“An unfair burden was put on him,” says Aram Goudsouzian, author of 2004’s “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

“In those early years, any black film considered cutting edge wasn’t shown in the South. By the ’60s, he became a stand-in for the way Hollywood liberals wanted to depict civil rights. He couldn’t play villains. He was crushed by radicals and students who wanted more realistic depictions of black life.”

“The movies themselves changed,” says Rose Kuo, executive director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center. “The ’70s became the blockbuster era, the Speilberg, John Hughes era, where the emphasis was on adolescence. The baton was passed.

“Sidney remains one of the most dignified people I’ve ever met.”

The normal arc of the heroic figure is to fall from grace and then learn meaning and purpose in the struggle for redemption. That doesn’t describe Poitier. He never fell from grace. The world fell around him.

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