Happy Birthday to Sidney Poitier, a Hollywood Game-Changer

Katharine Houghton, Sidney Poitier
Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Every actor hopes to make the world a better place. Sidney Poitier actually did it.

Feb. 20 marks the 89th birthday of Poitier, who was born in 1927 and who changed Hollywood. The film industry’s lack of diversity is still an issue, as the Oscar nominations furor reminds us. But it was even more extreme when the actor made his film debut in the 1950 “No Way Out.” There were other black actors in lead film roles, including James Edwards and Harry Belafonte, but they were extremely rare. And Poitier captured the public imagination like no one before him, with his soft but powerful voice, his precise way of speaking (with that slight, unidentifiable accent from the Bahamas) and, crucially, his integrity.

A Dec. 11, 1957, article in Variety announced his casting in the film “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier said he’d originally turned down the role, due to “the fear that if improperly handled, ‘Porgy and Bess’ could conceivably be, to my mind, injurious to Negroes.”

This was a simple but extraordinary statement. At that point Poitier wasn’t a major star, having made only six films in seven years; his breakthrough in the 1958 “The Defiant Ones” was still a year away. And most actors, especially black actors in the 1950s, were happy to get any work at all. What’s more, “Porgy and Bess” was a high-profile project, based on the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward prestige hit, directed by Otto Preminger and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. But he had his principles and he stuck to them.

For the next few decades, Poitier enlightened audiences by bringing three-dimensional characters to people who may have never met a black person, much less enjoyed their company for a few hours. He played characters that people wanted to know better.

Liberals sometimes sniffed that his roles in “Lilies of the Field” (for which he won an Oscar), “A Patch of Blue” and “To Sir With Love,” among others, were too idealistic. The 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” hinges on the question of whether Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy will approve Poitier’s engagement to their daughter (Katherine Houghton). The joke among Hollywood sophisticates was that she wasn’t good enough for him.

But those criticisms misunderstand the national and international mood. Only six months before the film’s release, interracial marriages were still illegal in 17 of the 50 states, or one-third of the country. In June 1967, the Supreme Court overturned those laws. While “Guess Who’s Coming’s” message of tolerance may seem simplistic today, it was an eye-opener to many.

Also controversial that year was “In the Heat of the Night,” which won the best-picture Oscar. As a northern detective involved in a murder investigation in Mississippi, Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs exhibited all of the actor’s virtues: Intelligence, decency, humor, sensitivity and a boatload of charisma.

Tibbs maintains composure as he is hampered in his investigation by bigots. At one point, a powerful local Caucasian man slaps Tibbs, who slaps him back. It’s hard to convey how shocking that was to some audiences — and cathartic to others.

The movie came out only three years after the federal Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964 after a D.C. debate about the pros and cons of equal rights. More than one-fourth of Congress had voted against it.

As news events frequently remind us, racial equality is still an ongoing struggle, even after all these years. But Sidney Poitier made a difference. He’s still a reminder of what people — and Hollywood — are capable of.

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  1. I think Sidney suggested the slap himself. He was and is great. But he was one of a generation of great black stars of the 40s and 50s who paved the way for those of today. You might be interested in my new podcast Classic Hollywood MTC about the lives and careers of some of the movie stars of the 30s, 40s and 50s.

    The most popular episodes are on two of Sidney’s contemporaries Sammy Davis Junior and Dorothy Dandridge both of whom were Sidney’s co-stars in the controversial Otto Preminger movie Porgy and Bess. Other episodes of the podcast cover Doris Days 30 year legal battle with her crooked lawyer and the dynamic career of Jeff Chandler the first actor to receive an oscar nomination for playing a Native American.

    The podcast can be found on ITunes, Stitcher and Tunein. It can also be accessed on the following RSS feed: http://classichollywoodmtc.libsyn.com/rss

    Thanks for reading this post and hope you enjoy the podcast.

  2. Jedi77 says:

    Does anyone know the story behind “the slap”?
    Was it in the script, was it the director’s idea, how did POitier feel about the scene at the time?

  3. Always Sunny in San Diego says:

    Sidney, you are an icon we will always treasure in our household !

  4. iamtrue2bill says:

    Mr. Poitier blazed a trail for so many black actors, as he opened the hearts and minds of so many white audiences. Who could not admire and respect this man’s talent, courage, and dignified presence, onscreen and off? I will never forget the gut-wrenching “A Patch of Blue, the touching humanity of “Lilies of the Field”, and so many other films of Mr. Poitier’s that I’ve enjoyed.

    Happy Birthday to an icon of film, and a creator of film history, Mr. Sidney Poitier.

  5. Kt. says:

    Of course, Poitier’s career also brings to mind the curtailed leading man potentials of Paul Robeson – who was even more ahead of the times could allow him.

    • timgray2013 says:

      Yes. The Variety Archives go back to 1905, and there are shocking stories about Robeson career problems.For example, even when he was starring in the West End, he was not allowed into certain London hotel or restaurants; he also caused an uproar when his Othello kissed the Caucasian Desdemona onstage… He was a great talent. And I love your description in the earlier post about Poitier’s charisma and coming from an alternate universe. Thanks for writing.
      Tim

  6. Kt. says:

    When Poitier first meets Tracy, it was still shocking to see in the 2000s. The familiar screen presence of Tracy had been surrounded by white casts most of his career (even the minimal Latinos in Tortilla Flat), for the first time met someone with equal dominance in presence, intelligence, talent and…black. Younger yet also ageless. And Poitier’s charisma, looks, steely resolve felt so sharp, electric, and sensible, it’s like he came from an alternate universe where no subservience was beaten into him. Especially in an American movie.

  7. Benten says:

    Beah Richards played opposite Sidney Poitier in both “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”

    Looking back at the best picture nominees in 1968, which included “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” & “Guess,” it might be said the Academy made the right call awarding “In the Heat,” because of that slap. It still shocks, and it was the first time we saw such an image on screen.

  8. Lisa says:

    Happy Birthday Great Storyteller. Words cannot express how very much I appreciate you Mr. Sidney Poitier. Above all else your person is most outstanding.

  9. phoebe says:

    Happy birthday Mr Poitier. Your voice is like music. Thanks for your wonderful movies and books!!!!

  10. Bill B. says:

    I believe the biggest hit he was ever in was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a dated, but still entertaining (due to some fun performances) cornball piece. Sorry, but I don’t believe that the joke was that she was too good for him. He was beyond perfect. I believe the point of the movie was that he was sooo perfect that the absolute only reason anyone could object to her marrying him was his color. As mild as this film is, it looked at racism straight in the face.

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