IIf you want to know what middle-class white America made of Sidney Poitier, a good place to start is to welcome the Manhattan social characters Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland to con artist Will Smith in the hit run. Six degrees of separation (1993). Smith plays Paul, a stranger who shows up at their door, saying he’s just been robbed and claiming to be Poitiers’ son. They are happy with it. He’s polite, charming, and well educated… just like his father – and he seems to have no threat to them. They are so glad that their generosity was spilled over him.
Poitier was the first black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for field lilies (1963). The star who made liberal white types, like those played by Channing and Sutherland, purrs happily about his performance and feels good about herself in the process. There is a tremendous moment in six degrees During which Smith gives a quick talk about the man he claims to be his father, and gives his white hosts a memorable history of exactly how Poitiers got to the top. This was a poverty-to-riches story of the most extreme kind.
The actor definitely came from very humble beginnings. Born prematurely in Miami in 1927, Poitier weighed just three pounds. He almost died at birth. His father was a poor farmer from the Bahamas who came to Florida to sell tomatoes. “Future Jackie Robinson” grew up so poor that – in Smith’s words – he “didn’t even have dirt”. When he first arrived in New York in 1943, he lived in the poorest conditions imaginable, living as a dishwasher and teaching himself how to read by studying newspapers.
From this unpromising start, he became one of the biggest box office celebrities in the United States. As biographer Aram Godsouzian wrote of Poitier, there was a long period in his career when he was “the only Hollywood icon of the racial enlightenment; no other black actor has ever won leading roles in major films.”
In his films, Poitier often played protagonists deeply frustrated with the prejudices they encountered, but that frustration was always tempered. His characters were not trying to overthrow a racial system but rather to change it from within. His image, in Godsouzian’s words, was “associated with nonviolence and inclusion.” Director Stanley Kramer described him as “the only actor I’ve ever worked with who owns Marlon Brando’s range – From Pity to Superpower”. However, Poitier was rarely allowed to play wildLike the rebels who made Brando famous or to connect with your inner Stanley Kowalski. Even when he was portrayed as a delinquent young man in the Richard Brooks movie the black Forest (1955), it was surprising that he eventually emerged to the side of the authorities as exemplified by the exemplary school teacher played by Glenn Ford.
But the range of Poitiers was enormous. He played a journalist who investigates, and motivates, a US Navy destroyer captain who looks like Ahab (Richard Widmark) in James B Harris. Bedford incident (1965); He was a jazz lover in Paris blues (1961); A Moorish warrior king in the Vikings saga, tall ships (1964); Church minister in anti-apartheid drama, The cry of the beloved country (1951); And Simon of Cyrene was helping Jesus, Max von Sydow, in carrying his cross Greatest story ever told (1965). He can do a light romantic comedy (Guess who’s coming to dinner), social realism and action films. He even ventured into musicals, starring, albeit reluctantly and not doing his own singing, in Otto Preminger’s on-screen version. Porgy and Bass (1959).
Probably Poitier’s most famous role was when a fugitive convict was handcuffed to Tony Curtis in the Stanley Kramer film. the challenge (1958) and as Detective Virgil Tibbs in Norman Joyson in the heat of the night (1967), in which he starred opposite racist police chief Rod Steiger. Both were exciting but manipulative companion films where the two leading men overcame their massive initial feud and established a strong relationship.
Poitier was smart, good-looking, and effortlessly attractive. Critics sometimes ridiculed him for his perceived conformism—for not being more radical in his film choices. However, this was never his strategy. As the only black movie star of his era, he was a profound influence. By taking on a variety of roles, he was constantly challenging deeply entrenched stereotypes. He demanded recognition as an artist and would be deeply frustrated with those who tried to define him by his race. As in Will Smith’s monologue Six degrees of separation He testifies, in his own way, that Poitier was truly a pioneer. Smith is just one of many contemporary stars who owe him a huge debt.