Aram Goudsouzian, University of Memphis

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Sidney Poitier, seen here in a photograph from 1980.
Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Aram Goudsouzyan, University of Memphis

In the summer of 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. presented the keynote speaker at the 10th Anniversary Convention Banquet of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their guest, he said, was his “soul brother”.

“He has carved an imperishable place for himself in the annals of our nation’s history,” King told the audience of 2,000 delegates. “I consider him a friend. I consider him a great friend of humanity.

This man was Sidney Poitier.

Poitier, who died at 94 on January 7, 2022, broke the mold of what a black actor in Hollywood could be. Prior to the 1950s, film noir characters typically reflected racist stereotypes such as lazy servants and burly moms. Then came Poitier, the only black man to consistently win lead roles in major films from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. Like King, Poitier projected ideals of respectability and integrity. He attracted not only the loyalty of African Americans, but also the goodwill of white liberals.

In my biography of him, titled ‘Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon’, I sought to capture his entire life, including his incredible ragged arc to riches, his sizzling on-screen vitality, his triumphs and personal weaknesses and his quest to live up to the values ​​set forth by his Bahamian parents. But the most fascinating aspect of Poitier’s career, to me, was his political and racial symbolism. In many ways, his screen life was intertwined with that of the civil rights movement — and with King himself.

Actor Sidney Poitier marches during a civil rights demonstration in 1968.
Sidney Poitier, center, walks during the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, in May 1968.
Photo by Chester Sheard/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An era of protests

In three separate columns in 1957, 1961 and 1962, a New York Daily News columnist named Dorothy Masters marveled that Poitier had the warmth and charisma of a minister. Poitier lent his name and resources to King’s causes, and he participated in protests such as the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage and the 1963 March on Washington. In this age of sit-ins, freedom rides and mass marches, activists have engaged in nonviolent sacrifice not only to bring racist oppression to light, but also to win wider sympathy for the cause of civil rights.

In the same vein, Poitier deliberately chose to portray characters who radiated kindness. They had decent values ​​and helped white characters, and they often sacrificed themselves. He got his first starring role in 1958, in “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played an escaped prisoner handcuffed to a racist played by Tony Curtis. In the end, the chain untied, Poitier jumps off a train to stay with his new white friend. Writer James Baldwin reported seeing the film on Broadway, where white audiences cheered confidently, their racial guilt lessened. When he saw him again in Harlem, the mostly black audience members shouted “Get back on the train, you fool!”

King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That same year, Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who builds a chapel for nuns. German. of his heart. The sweet, low-budget film was a surprise hit. In its own way, like the horrifying images of garden hoses and police dogs attacking civil rights activists, it fostered growing support for racial integration.

Sidney Poitier stars in the film
Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in the 1967 film ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.
Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A better man

By the time of the actor’s speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King and Poitier seemed to have a grip on the American public. Bloody and destructive riots plagued cities across the country, reflecting the lingering discontent of many poor African Americans. Swelling calls for “Black Power” challenged ideals of non-violence and racial brotherhood – ideals associated with both King and Poitier.

When Poitier approached the lectern that evening, he lamented “greed, selfishness, indifference to the suffering of others, the corruption of our value system and a moral deterioration that has already scarred our souls. irrevocably”. “On my bad days,” he said, “I am guilty of suspecting that there is a national death wish.”

By the late 1960s, King and Poitier had reached a crossroads. Federal legislation dismantled Jim Crow in the South, but African Americans still suffered from limited opportunities. King prescribed a “revolution of values”, denounced the Vietnam War and launched a Campaign of the Poor. Poitier, in his 1967 speech for the SCLC, said that King, by adhering to his beliefs in social justice and human dignity, “made me a better man”.

Exceptional characters

Poitier tried to conform to his own convictions. As long as he was the only black leader, he insisted on playing the same kind of hero. But at the time of Black Power, had the holy hero of Poitiers become another stereotype? His rage was suppressed, his sexuality suppressed. A black critic, writing in The New York Times, asked “Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so?”

Sidney Poitier received the Medal of Freedom in 2009.
President Barack Obama presents Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier with the Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This critic was right: as Poitier knew himself, his films created characters that were too perfect. While the films allowed white audiences to appreciate a black man, they also hinted that racial equality depended on such exceptional characters, stripped of any racial baggage. From late 1967 to early 1968, three of Poitier’s films held the No. 1 spot at the box office, and a poll ranked him Hollywood’s most bankable star.

Each film offered a hero who appeased the liberal center. His high-mannered teacher in ‘To Sir, With Love’ tames a class of rogue teenagers in London’s East End. His razor-sharp detective in “In the Heat of the Night” helps a white Southern sheriff solve a murder. Her world-famous doctor in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” marries a white woman, but only after getting her parents’ blessing.

“I try to make films about the dignity, the nobility, the magnificence of human life,” he insisted. Audiences flocked to his films, in part because he transcended racial divide and social despair – even as more African Americans, baby boomers and film critics grew weary of the old-fashioned benevolent spirit of these films.

Intertwined Lives

And then, the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sidney Poitier crossed one last time. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Poitier was a stand-in for the ideal that King embodied. During his presentation at the Oscars, Poitier won a massive ovation. “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” won most major awards. Hollywood again dealt with the racial upheaval of the nation through the films of Poitiers.

But after King’s violent murder, the Poitiers icon no longer captured the national mood. In the 1970s, a generation of “Blaxploitation” films featured violent and sexually charged heroes. They were a reaction against the image of a black leader associated with Poitiers. Although his career had moved on, Poitier was no longer a superstar and he no longer had the burden of representing the black freedom movement. Yet for a generation it had been popular culture’s preeminent expression of the ideals of Martin Luther King.

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Aram Goudsouzian, history teacher of the Bizot family, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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