Sidney Poitier, one of Hollywood’s true trailblazers, is about to receive Bafta’s highest honour – and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect, Tim Stanley writes for London’s Telegraph.
In 1964, Sidney Poitier collected an Oscar for his performance in Lillies of the Field. Ann Bancroft, presenting him the award, gave him a peck on the cheek. Racial conservatives were outraged. This was a time when interracial marriage was still widely outlawed and civil rights workers were being murdered. Poitier’s Oscar was a symbol that things were changing. Fifty-two years later, a lot remains the same.
This weekend, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts grants Sidney Poitier its highest honour, the Bafta Fellowship. It’s richly deserved – for many years, Poitier was black cinema. Yet his story began a long way from Hollywood.
Poitier’s parents were tomato farmers in the Bahamas. He was born in 1927, prematurely during a visit to Miami – which meant that Sidney automatically gained US citizenship. At 15 he moved to Miami (“an anti-human place”, he once said), then to New York, where he washed dishes and worked as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons. Poitier spoke in a thick Caribbean accent, couldn’t sing and – worst of all – could hardly read.
In the long run, however, this all worked to his advantage. Other black actors tended to be cast as entertainers. They fulfilled stereotypes of southern bumpkins, Harlem gangsters or jazz musicians. Poitier, by contrast, modelled his self-taught speaking style on American newscasters. He was a straightforward actor, someone who demanded and deserved to be treated equally with whites.
He understudied for Harry Belafonte in Days of Our Youth before landing a small part in an all-black production of Lysisrata. His first film role was No Way Out (1950), which cast him as a doctor treating a white bigot. With The Blackboard Jungle in 1955, Poitier became a household name as a rebellious student. Stardom followed with The Defiant Ones in 1960, Lillies of the Field and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, an interracial dating comedy-drama, in 1967.
That same year he relocated to the east end of London for the sweet school drama To Sir, With Love, giving up his usual $1 million fee in exchange for a share of the profits – the first actor to do so. Poitier’s star power made it the decade’s third biggest British film at the US box office, just behind Thunderball and Goldfinger, making a rich man and pioneering a new business model for Hollywood actors.
The private Poitier was complicated. His first marriage was sorely tested by an on-again-off-again affair with Diahann Carroll, who left her own husband twice before finally realising that Poitier wasn’t going to ditch his devoted Catholic wife. Poitier had bought a love pad and, she later confessed, “I was about to move in (with him) when he told me he didn’t want me there. He changed the locks.” She claims that he also “made me write him a cheque to offset his purchase and decorating costs.” They later reconciled.
Poitier finally divorced in 1965 and married a Canadian actress in 1976. In the early 1980s, a con artist called David Hampton turned up on the Manhattan party scene claiming to be Poitier’s son. He successfully defrauded people out of food, money and lodgings before being caught and imprisoned – and his story became the source material for the play Six Degrees of Separation (later made into a film starring Will Smith).
The willingness of New York society to take Hampton in spoke volumes about Poitier’s status as a symbol of black America, and the enthusiasm of white elites to be associated with him.
“Sidney Poitier,” wrote critic Vincent Canby in the 1960s, “does not make movies, he makes milestones.” This was not a compliment. Hollywood had defined him as a black saint: either teaching us a lesson or being martyred by our inability to learn. The contemporary black film critic Donald Bogle said that his characters “spoke proper English, dressed conservatively” and were “non-funky, almost sexless and sterile… The perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a colored man in for lunch or dinner.”
Even In The Heat of the Night (1967), in which Poitier played a black policeman investigating a murder in a town boiling with racism, earned the ire of those championing Black Power. Clifford Mason, a black director and playwright, called his character, Virgil Tibbs, “a good guy in a totally white world, with no wife, no sweetheart, no woman to love of kiss, helping the white solve the white man’s problem.”
Mason’s emphasis upon the asexual nature of Poitier was cruel but a pithy summary of a mainstream culture that emasculated black people. That Ann Bancroft had kissed Sidney Poitier at the Oscars was bad enough. If he had kissed her, there might have been a riot.
Poitier, a civil rights veteran, was stung by the criticism. He later said: “a shift in the tide had taken place, so I bought a boat and a lot of books and just went down to the Caribbean and cooled it for about a year.” He decided to focus on being a director. His hilarious Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy Stir Crazy (1980) was the first movie by a black director to break $100 million at the box office.
The last movie he directed, Ghost Dad (1990) starring Bill Cosby, was so bad that the critic Roger Ebert gave it half a star out of four. (Poitier is reportedly “utterly disgusted” with his old pal Cosby, who stands accused of sexual assault.)
Poitier later served as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan and published a sci-fi novel. He was considered for the role of President Jed Bartlet in The West Wing, reflecting his reputation as unimpeachable and decent. He’s served as a mentor to young black actors.
When a lonely Samuel L Jackson first moved to Hollywood in the early 1990s, he met Poitier at a party and was astonished when his hero invited him to play golf. “I beat him, took some of his money,” Jackson told Vanity Fair. “My wife was upset. She said, ‘You took Sidney Poitier’s money? You’re supposed to let him win!’” One can infer that Poitier opened up Hollywood to people like Jackson, that he made it possible to succeed.
Indeed, the Hollywood hand-wringing over race in the 1960s seems refreshingly idealistic to us today. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jnr was shot dead. The Oscars were scheduled for the 8th. Poitier, Diahann Carol, Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Jnr announced that they wouldn’t attend because it was too soon – so the Academy agreed to postpone the ceremony by two days.
Of the five films nominated for best picture, two starred Poitier and dealt with racism – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In The Heat of the Night. When Poitier presented the award for Best Actress, he received the longest ovation of the night.
Compare the way that Hollywood addressed racial conflict then to the present-day controversy over the lack of non-white Academy Award nominees – for a second year in a row. The blame lies not only with the Academy’s overwhelmingly white complexion. It reflects the ethics of an industry that preaches equality yet segregates movies into those aimed at black and white audiences, fails to promote non-white talent, and adheres to antiquated notions of “beauty”. The residual reluctance to feature interracial relationships suggests that taboos remain.
So the Bafta’s acknowledgement of Poitier is timely. With racial tension running high in America’s cities, a black president about to leave the White House and Hollywood testing its conscience, it’s instructive to reflect on the career of a man who broke down so many barriers.
Of course, the Fellowship is not a political award and, ultimately, Poitier is being recognised as a great actor rather than narrowly as a black one. His movies are classics, his screen presence is utterly mesmerising. He was, and still is, a star.