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a tale of two sidneys
poitier's quiet, classy revolution
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

Being the first black anything is a lonely job.

I saw Sidney Poitier’s freewheeling, all-star, all-black comedy Uptown Saturday Night often as a child. So I was a little confused a few years later, when Poitier was presented to me, catering to a bunch of dizzy white nuns in the film adaptation of Lilies of the Field in my eighth grade English class. He was the only black person in the movie and I was the only black male in my English class, and I actually felt embarrassed for him, and then for myself. I have been trying ever since to reconcile the spotless, solitary Poitier of the 1960s with the more carefree Poitier in the decade that followed.

Ironically, his finest performance, in Lorraine Hansberry’s black self-esteem anthem A Raisin in the Sun (1961) was not even nominated for the Oscar he would win two years later for Lilies of the Field. I will not assault your common sense and tell you why. If you have seen A Raisin in the Sun and remember that black people couldn’t even vote in 1961, the bigger question is how this film was even made.

For most of the '60s, Poitier was too good to be true: a prison psychiatrist at the wrong end of Bobby Darin’s racist barbs in Pressure Point (1962); a kind man who falls in love with an impoverished, blind, white girl despite her racist, prostitute mother in A Patch of Blue (1965); the internationally renowned doctor who sits through two hours of Hepburn and Tracy’s condescension – but doesn’t hesitate to check his own father – in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Still, he evolved as America allowed him to. In 1965’s forgotten The Bedford Incident, his journalist wasn’t exactly the most ethical journalist we’ve seen on screen. By In the Heat of the Night, his detective Virgil Tibbs changed the world by, yes, smacking a white man back across the face – in DeLuxe! – but perhaps, more importantly, by being a good but flawed detective who occasionally made irrational, emotional decisions.

Eleven years after playing a rebellious high school student in The Blackboard Jungle, Poitier played a high school teacher in To Sir, With Love. Some black people bristled at the perfectblackmansettlingwhitepeople’sproblems persona that Poitier had made his career on, being played yet again. Though the film has aged well (films about youth failing to connect with the adults around them usually do), I share this concern about the film as well.

Mostly because the sexual tension in To Sir, With Love is through the roof. Every other woman in the film (be they student or teacher) gives Poitier an extra glance or smile or cup of coffee or gyration. And why not? His striking, well-dressed, dark-skinnedness stands out in this movie like never before. The first scene in the teachers’ lounge confirms it: he literally towers over everyone in the movie. If you didn’t know why he was a star before To Sir, With Love, you know it about 15 minutes in. He practically glows. (And not because he got any help from the cameramen, rest assured.) But not only does Poitier not regard any of the flirtations, he doesn’t even seem to be attracted to any woman in the movie, not even on a primal level. (Which becomes a little hard to believe when a naïve Julie Christie clone becomes his confidant and follows his every move. No way he's not smashing her in real life.)

As a result, Poitier was visibly more comfortable in films with predominantly black casts. (With the exception of 1959’s Porgy and Bess, the kind of disaster that can only be made by a director as talented and arrogant as Otto Preminger.) Around his people, he did not have to be perfect or make white people feel better or overcome racial injustice all by himself. Still, as the 1960s came to a close, he moved swiftly from pride to pariah in segments of the black community -- take no prisoners blaxploitation films had arrived.

Never mind that they couldn't have arrived without him.

Poitier then took greater charge of his career and his message. His assured 1972 directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher, lets you know right up front that things done changed. A title card just after the opening credits dedicates the film to “those whose graves are as unmarked as their place in history.” It is the story of blacks heading West in the late 19th century, faced with the constant threat of being captured and sold into slavery by bounty hunters. I’m guessing it was pretty damn revolutionary to see black people starring in a Western in 1972. Probably even more so to see them get saved at the end by a cavalry of Native Americans.

Poitier stars in the film as well – as the no-nonsense wagon master Buck – but wisely leaves the heavy lifting to his good friend, Harry Belafonte, in his showy role as the grimy, corrupt Preacher. (He would follow the same cue in the Uptown Saturday Night movies, letting Bill Cosby crack most of the jokes and chase most of the skirts.) This more rebellious turn wasn’t Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song or anything, but Sidney still got the girl and the money and defeated the Man. That he didn’t do it while wearing a Chinchilla, cursing or sleeping with multiple women shouldn’t have been held against him.

In 1975’s The Wilby Conspiracy, he plays a South African revolutionary on the lam with Michael Caine after the duo beat up cops who unjustly assaulted Poitier. It’s basically The Defiant Ones, except they’re only chained together figuratively. Poitier settles into a South African dialect much more comfortably than he ever did his American one. Michael Caine – always excellent in playing characters physically, but not emotionally committed to the cause – provides a nice counterpoint to Poitier’s fatalist pragmatism.

Poitier gets it on with an Indian dentist’s wife while police interrogate the dentist on Poitier's whereabouts. The love scene is kind of illogical, but I guess it starts to make up for all the logical sex scenes that they didn’t let Sidney have a decade before.

The film was only given a limited release: I’m guessing the film’s Africans-rebelling-against-the-apartheid-state theme was a little too heady for the corporate suits in 1975. It’s a shame because the film is compelling and features one of Poitier’s best performances. And I’m stricken now at how similar the film’s ending is to Avatar’s.

I will call the three films (Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action) that he directed and co-starred in with Bill Cosby the Uptown Saturday Night trilogy, for lack of a better term. I know they are not a trilogy.

That they were each financially successful and directed by Poitier is telling. Though he was, by definition, the biggest box office star of 1967 (after starring in the smashes To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with him after that. So after a couple of poorly executed sequels involving Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night character, Virgil Tibbs, Poitier took his career into his own hands. In his own way, he paved the way for other matinee idols turned directors like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood.

And all three movies are funny and insular in ways that Poitier wasn’t allowed to be in the 60s, lest he embarrass us like Rochester Anderson or be ostracized like Paul Robeson. Still, even in playing low class, but brilliant thieves, Poitier still had an element of refinement about him. In fact, I don’t really know if he ever played a character who was completely hopeless. But I see now that he couldn’t have. Because that would’ve made others feel hopeless.

I’m telling you, being the first black anything, it’s a lonely gig. But when I see Lilies of the Field today, I'm not ashamed of Sidney. I'm ashamed that he had to do so much alone.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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mike julianelle
10.13.10 @ 11:44a

"No way he's not smashing her in real life."

Way to sneak in a line like that in a "quiet, classy" piece like this. Takes the air out a bit, and that's never a bad thing.

Actually made me laugh out loud!

mike julianelle
10.13.10 @ 11:48a

Also - can we talk about Shoot To Kill?

jason gilmore
10.14.10 @ 1:47a

@Mike - I debated for awhile about putting that line in. Thanks for appreciating.

Lol @ Shoot to Kill. No, because then I'd have to talk about how he directed Ghost Dad hahaha.

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