In the 1967’s mystery thriller, In the Heat of the Night, a prejudiced Police Chief looks Sidney Poitier’s detective, Virgil Tibbs right in the eyes and says, “You’re just like the rest of us, aint’cha.” This statement not only defined Tibbs but much of Sidney Poitier’s early acting career, a career defined by characters who lessened the sentiment that blackness should be equated with “other.” For many blacks, myself included, Sidney Poitier has always been associated with excellence, an example to be passed down by our parents and grandparents. This is skill, they say. This is craft. And they’re not wrong. Refined, dignified, and able to swing between an easy, good-humored charm, and furious passion within instants, Poitier shrugged off the weight of the coon characters and inheritors of Uncle Tom’s decrepit cabin, which had become so associated with the black male actor. But it’s one thing to be embraced by the black community, enraptured with seeing honorable examples of themselves on the screen, and another to find one’s work celebrated by the white community as well. One isn’t more important than the other mind you, but in Hollywood, an industry ruled by white voices, it really was something for a black artist to find a place within that restricted community. It still is something. Some modern assessments of Poitier’s characters have criticized industry tokenism, while complaining the roles were too close to white wealth in their etiquette, and too far from black power in their modesty. But what those criticisms fail to realize is that Sidney Poitier took on characters who demanded respect, who avoided stereotype, and who could show us that black men, regardless of profession, or history, could be just as desirable, just as inspiring, just as commanding as any white character who owned the screen and made audiences fall in love with them.
Three of the most significant films of Sidney Poitier’s career all turn fifty this year. To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night all make for an exceptional showcase of Poitier’s talents as an actor. His ability to make those films came as a result of him being the first African-American male to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award for The Defiant Ones, and the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field. Anyone who would argue that cinema achievement awards don’t matter, and have never mattered, must have clearly missed the effect the Oscars had on Poitier’s career. Poitier’s performance as Homer Smith found him up against Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Rex Harrison, and Paul Newman for the Oscar, and that in itself is spectacular. The fact that he won amidst that assortment is even more spectacular. 1964’s Lilies of the Field tells the story of a handyman who is tasked by a group of East German nuns, believing he was sent by God, to build a chapel in the dessert. Homer Smith is a precursor to the roles Poitier would later take on, and an example of his penchant for finding honesty in unlikely stories. Poitier commands every scene he’s in, offering both charm, comedic timing, and generosity. The character Smith defied all stereotypes of the black man as lazy and unintelligent by not only successfully building the chapel but teaching the nuns English as well. Beyond his goodness, Smith is a character that acts with agency, who doesn’t work for free, and refuses to be used simply as a laborer. He’s opinionated, resourceful, and builds a community around him through his intelligence. Homer Smith is a role that isn’t dependent on the trope-filled blackness of the times but whose blackness goes on to show that that there is diversity within a race, and that we, as blacks, contain infinite, and exquisite multitudes equal to everyone else.
We find those exquisite multitudes of Poitier within each of the three aforementioned films from 1967. The first being, To Sir, With Love, found Poitier playing Mark Thackeray, a temporary teacher who finds an enthusiasm for the profession in an East End London school filled with delinquents. He can take control of the classroom with a simple look, but when he speaks, there’s such empathy in Poitier’s delivery that it’s easy to believe these students would be inspired by him. Yes, the fact that Thackeray is able to turn disrespectful children into adults who are ready for the world over the course of a couple weeks strains credibility, but Poitier sells it by making every line deliberate, and finding the range of emotions, humor, heartbreak, anger, and love, within each of those lines. His presence is a call for those around him to be better, and Poitier’s striking, clean-cut figure makes this easy to believe. While the character’s race comes into play, it’s isn’t focused on as much as the latter America-set films. His blackness is utilized moreso as a point of interest, rather than the crux on which the film is built. Regardless of his race, Poitier becomes a moral pillar in this film, an aspect which would follow him throughout the rest of his career, sometimes to a supposed fault.
The most controversial of Poitier’s roles came in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, in which a white woman brings her black fiancé home to meet her parents. Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice is a good-humored and noble romantic figure. But his position is jeopardized in part by his willingness to place the state of his impending marriage to Joanna in the hands of her parents and their approval. Accusations have been made that the character is subservient, and also far too “white-acting” for any white parents to ultimately disapprove of. But Prentice’s desire for approval isn’t for his own well-being but so that the happiness of his fiancé can be maintained through her close relationship with her parents. It’s a romantic gesture that cements the believability of the love between these two people from different races. And while a modern take would surely have more to say on this subject, as my own biracial marriage could attest to, the film finds both humor and authenticity in a subject that had yet to even have its day in court, by way of Loving v. Virginia, before filming was concluded. And as for Prentice’s alleged “whiteness,” that circles back around to Poitier’s position as an actor who sought to do more than fulfill expectations by way of jive-talk and alternative fashion sensibilities. For those things are not that through which blackness is defined. The key moment in the film occurs not when Prentice gains the approval of Joanna’s parents, but when he faces his own father who disapproves of his son’s relationship with a white woman. Poitier, full of conviction and a textured blending of the film’s complex emotions delivers the lines, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.” These lines are just as much to Prentice’s father as they are a message to the audience, an invitation to simply see him as a human regardless of dress, speech, or color.
Poitier’s final film of 1967, In the Heat of the Night, also worked along explicit racial lines, but by way of detective thriller instead of romantic comedy. In this film, Philadelphia detective, Virgil Tibbs, is forced to work alongside racist cops in Mississippi in order to solve a murder. This film, often regarded as a precursor to Blaxploitation films that would make their impact within the early years of the following decade, allowed Poitier to display a bit more gravitas than his previous roles. He’s not asking for respect or approval, he demands it. The most famous example of that, and perhaps the most famous of all Poitier’s lines is the oft-referenced, “They call me Mister Tibbs.” The shades of Blaxploitation are there in that Tibbs is positioned as superior to his white counterparts in every way, and he gets away with slapping a rich white man after said man slaps him, but there’s still a moral integrity to Tibbs that Blaxploitation would play fast and loose with. Blaxploitation was a chance to show the black man within the black man’s world, but Poitier’s 1967 films showed the black man in the white man’s world, and offered a different, and sometimes more relevant reality because of that. Tibbs became the only character Poitier would play that would venture on legendary status, given the trilogy of films surrounding the character. Poitier famously turned down or refused to seek the roles of historic figures, Shakespearan characters, or macho-based roles, preferring to use his skills to broaden our views of the regular man.
Even though Poitier was able to find the multitudes of character and emotion within blackness, the legacy of those roles haven’t always managed to do the same. So many screenwriters, directors, and actors took the manners and moral codes of Poitier’s characters for stoicism, leading to bland characterizations defined by rule-following, ignoring that Poitier’s characters broke both rules and expectations. Many more artists took his characters’ lack of sexual encounters as a sign that black goodness meant a lack of black sexuality, ignoring the fact of how desired Poitier’s characters are in these films. Too often black actors have been pigeonholed by race, out of a fear that there can only be broad examples of moral black characters and immoral ones, while missing the point that there is such life and range within morality and immorality. Sidney Poitier’s moral characters were progressive in their own right, but are not a stopping point in terms of a character’s actions or intentions. Poitier’s legacy shouldn’t be a quest to simply find morality in blackness but to find the humanity in it. Denzel Washington, who has often cited Sidney Poitier as an inspiration, is the best example of this legacy. There are moments in Poitier’s films where you can directly see what Washington would pull from later. And as the second African-American actor to win Best Actor, for playing a complex villain of equal humanity and infinite multitudes to Poitier’s complex hero, Washington has rightly become our modern example of excellence in acting. Poitier’s legacy isn’t celebrated by proper black characters but by black characters who are more than their race. Poitier led the way for us to define characters by their moments, not by the color of their skin. He achieved this with both a subtlety that calls for us to look closer at the art of performance and grandness that’s made him impossible to ignore and impossible to forget. Sidney Poitier, showed us the infinite multitudes of blackness through rich and soulful performances that helped us feel that we could fit in anywhere, just like the rest of them.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures