An Op-Ed piece by Wil Haygood for The Washington Post.
There are watery caves off Cat Island in the Bahamas and it was into those shark-filled waters that a young Sidney Poitier loved diving, fearless and reckless, a kid being a kid. “There was a very narrow tunnel in the rocks that would fill up with water with every wave,” he would recall. “It was a death trap, but I kept on swimming through that tunnel for hours with no one else around.”
Sidney Poitier, who died Thursday at the age of 94, would need that persistence to conquer the apartheid system in America’s most enduring land of denial and make-believe, otherwise known as Hollywood.
Sidney was first-name cool. The Black mamas and grandmas of America — especially in the late 1950s through the 1980s — just loved them some Sidney. He had to represent a whole race of people; no other Black man was prominent on the big or little screen before he showed up. He had to tutor White America with every movement of body and utterance from his lips. He moved with astonishing grace and had mellifluous diction.
That’s what he threw back in the face of Rod Steiger’s small town police chief in “In the Heat of the Night.” Poitier played Detective Virgil Tibbs of Philadelphia, speaking in blood-soaked Mississippi for every Black man in America whose mom had been disrespected at the Woolworth’s. Yes, it was a movie, and it was make-believe, but it was mighty real in Black America. They call me Mr. Tibbs!
Consider what he was up against: America’s first blockbuster was D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” A fictional and revisionist film about Reconstruction, it portrayed Blacks as savages and rapists, and Klansmen as heroes saving White womanhood. The racist film — which had a special showing inside President Woodrow Wilson’s White House — played in theaters for four straight years. Blacks went to court to prevent it from playing in certain cities. There were pickets and NAACP protests. Black people were jailed. The fistfights in front of theaters went on and on.
It was three decades later that Sidney arrived in New York City, scrounging for work. He got caught up in the Harlem Race Riot of 1943. A bullet grazed his leg. The riot had started in the usual manner — White police officer roughing up some Black hotel guests.
He caught the theater bug. He trained at the American Negro Theater. He met Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte and Canada Lee and Frederick O’Neal. He went on the road with a theatrical troupe. He had found a family, a calling, a life. There was laughter and joy; Black hosts prepared good meals: Chicken and dumplings and sweet potato pie. Chatter would erupt about the awful stereotypical roles offered Black performers in Hollywood — maids, chauffeurs, invisible men and women.
Sidney got a break in 1950 when Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast him in “No Way Out.” He played a doctor in a White hospital who has a constant run-in with a bigoted patient under arrest. Many Southern theaters refused to show the film.
Then, it seemed, the earth started to move: More roles came. He got top billing in “The Defiant Ones,” opposite Tony Curtis. But the way the earth was moving for Blacks in America remained dangerous. There were murders of Black people throughout the Deep South. Hollywood remained a no man’s land for the Black performer.
Harlem Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. announced hearings in 1962 to investigate racism in the movie industry. The Hollywood moguls laughed away his invitations to appear before the committee. Sidney appeared. “I think it is 13,000 Screen Actors Guild members, I being the only Negro to earn a living in the motion picture industry,” he told Powell’s committee.
Sidney stood tall at the 1963 March on Washington next to his boon buddy Belafonte. They went to Mississippi together, delivering money to bail civil rights workers out of jail. He made “Lilies of the Field,” and in 1964 became the first Black person to win an Oscar for best actor. He told the press at the time he was unsure if his Oscar win would mean more jobs for Black performers. His skepticism proved correct.
There were, to be sure, White heroes in Sidney’s life, agents and directors who were wise enough to aid in his success. Of that crew, Ralph Nelson and Stanley Kramer and Martin Baum must be mentioned. But make no mistake: Sidney gave Black Americans a reason to fall in love with cinema.
For decades, Black actors and directors such as Lee Daniels wanted to meet Sidney, to ask questions. A compliment from Sidney seemed priceless. “He became — consciously and subconsciously — the gold standard of what is possible,” actor David Oyelowo said Friday. “He was, in a real way, the only excuse I could give my parents as a reason I wanted to become an actor. No one else represented what they deemed acceptable in what I was trying to do.”
Sidney Poitier, who seemed forever and unstoppable, is gone. He belongs now to the ages.