On 20 February 2017, Sidney Poitier—”Sir Sidney” both in the colloquial and in reality (he was knighted in 1974), and just “Sir” in one of his biggest hits, To Sir, With Love (1967)—will turn 90 years old.
Even today, Poitier continues a decades long career of collecting accolades for his pioneering role as Hollywood’s first black movie star. Just last week at its eighth annual awards ceremony, the African-American Film Critics Association bestowed Poitier with its inaugural “Icon Award.” That honor joins the knighthood, two Oscars, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with many others, in Poitier’s trophy case.
At the same time, Poitier also continues a nearly equally long career of carefully calibrating the connection between his stardom and racial politics in the United States. Poitier’s fellow star, friend, and foil Harry Belafonte has long spoken forthrightly on matters of race and social justice, most recently in the 5 February 2017 New York Times. In contrast, Poitier mostly lets his work do the talking; I must note, however, that Poitier was vigorously engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and was a prominent fundraiser for the Movement.
As the United States has moved, seemingly abruptly, from the Obama era to the Trump era, I’ve been wondering what we might hear in Poitier’s work.
One answer—certainly one that was prominent at the height of Poitier’s career in the late ’60s—would be: conciliatory, “dignified,” and maddeningly limited gradualism (“dignified” is almost certainly the adjective most persistently used in relation to Poitier). Many film and cultural critics noted in 2008 that Poitier could be seen as a pre-figuration of Barack Obama, and in his autobiography, Obama wrote of Poitier as among his youthful role models. At the threshold of the Obama Presidency, this way of seeing Poitier seemed a sort of delayed, radical conclusion to Poitier’s career (his last role as an actor was in 2001, though he published his third autobiography, Life Beyond Measure, in ’08). Poitier’s harshest critics of the late ’60s and ’70s saw him as “an old [uncle] tom dressed up with modern intelligence and reason” (the words are Donald Bogle’s) for his role in making white people feel OK about interracial marriage in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Maybe Poitier’s character, John Prentice, a world renowned doctor who imagines his biracial children would one day be Secretary of State, if not President as his fiancé predicts, was getting the last laugh with President Obama’s inauguration. Or maybe John Prentice’s 2017 analogue is Ben Carson, a medical doctor of considerable repute, proposed as President Trump’s Secretary of…Housing.
Other aspects and texts of Poitier’s stardom, though, resonate more clearly critically in the current moment.
Poitier could only become Poitier because of the US traditions of international trade, natal citizenship, and opportunities for immigrants. Poitier is a dual United States-Bahamian citizen. He was born, prematurely, in Florida, where his Bahamian parents had traveled by boat to market their tomato crop. He lived in the Bahamas until his middle teens, but was sent to live in the United States as he neared adulthood. Because of his US birth, he was “legal”—unlike his brothers, one of whom was arrested three times trying to enter the United States and one of whom did immigrate and gain legal status by marrying an American, providing Sidney a place to land in Miami. Still, “legal” or not, young Poitier was Bahamian—obviously so in his accent. He moved to New York City when the “barbed wire” (Poitier’s words in an early star-level national press profile in Newsweek, 1957) of Jim Crow Southern racism became too much, and New York allowed Poitier the American dream of remaking himself—most pointedly remaking his literal voice. Poitier is an embodied argument for the benefits of an America envisioned as an open, welcoming, cosmopolitan if also profoundly imperfect nation.
And then there is Poitier’s first major role in No Way Out (1950), an underappreciated, under-seen, unconciliatory noir-social problem film mash-up. Poitier plays the first of his many doctors, Luther Brooks a young intern who is integrating the medical staff of a big city hospital. Johnny Biddle, a white man brought in for emergency treatment of a minor leg wound suffered when he robbed a gas station, dies mysteriously under Luther’s care. Johnny’s brother, Ray, a virulent racist, vows revenge. Luther waivers between certainty that his diagnosis of meningitis was correct and self-doubt. Maybe he made a mistake? Maybe his antipathy to Johnny and Ray made him lose his focus? Maybe he’s not qualified? His loving wife, extended family, and black neighbors and co-workers all support Luther, creating a sense of black community rare in Hollywood movies, including many of Poitier’s. Ray hatches a double plot: His friends will attack Luther’s neighborhood, igniting a race war that Ray is confident the whites will win; meanwhile, Ray will hunt and kill Luther.
An African-American man passing for white tips the neighborhood to Ray’s plan, and a group of black World War II veterans trap and attack the plotters. The hospital is inundated by wounded and dead men, white and black. Luther is caught by Ray, who prepares to shoot him in the head, point blank. But Johnny’s ex-wife Edie (who’s been brought into the investigation into what killed Johnny; Luther’s diagnosis was correct) kills the lights. In the darkness Luther is wounded but disarms Ray, who reopens the injury he suffered in the robbery that caused his and Johnny’s paths to cross Luther’s.
Edie argues that Luther should kill Ray—even offers to do it herself: “He’s not even human. He’s a mad dog. You kill mad dogs, dontcha?” Despite his own rage, Luther tends to Ray: “Look—he’s sick, he’s crazy, he’s everything you said, but I can’t kill a man just because he hates me…Because I’ve got to live, too.” Luther fashions a tourniquet from Edie’s black and white polka dotted scarf and Ray’s pistol, which Luther carefully empties. They fasten it to Ray’s upper thigh, just below his groin. Sirens approach. Edie steps away to prepare to let the police in. Ray weeps from an apparent combination of pain, rage, shame, and cognitive dissonance. With a tiny smile suggesting a sadistic satisfaction Luther twists the pistol, tightening the tourniquet, and has the last word: “Don’t cry white boy…you gonna live.” Ray sobs.
In 1950, No Way Out was banned in many places in the United States—and not just the South, but also in places like Chicago, which in a few decades would become Barack Obama’s hometown. To quote Hemingway at his most hardboiled, “isn’t it pretty to think” that if more Americans had seen No Way Out then or since, the United States might have come to the conclusion that Robert Frost’s 1915 poem “Servant to Servant” does (admittedly Frost isn’t addressing race)?
The best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through…
It’s pretty to think so. But it didn’t come to pass.
Nonetheless, Sir Sidney is still here at 90, reminding us with his presence of what an open America can be, what it can have and create. And reminding us with his gritty first big movie role that we have known for a long time the traps we are in—and that if we struggle, collaborate, and chose our paths wisely, we may get out. If we’re lucky.
Happy Birthday, Mr Poitier. Thank you for your gifts.
Featured image credit: Sidney Poitier hugs President Barack Obama after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009. Pete Souza, White House, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.