Poitier’s Legacy in Film and Activism

Image: Evening Standard/Getty Images.

Off-screen, the beloved actor Sidney Poitier known for his many blockbuster films, including Lilies of the Field—for which he became the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor— In the Heat of the NightTo Sir, With Love, was politically active in his own way.  Early on, he had decided that he would not take roles he felt were undignified. Given that the bulk of the roles available to Black men in the 1950s and 1960s were unflattering and stereotypical, this was not an easy goal. He made the sacrifice as both a husband and father, even continuing to work as a dishwasher when he could not find roles that met his criteria. 

“Almost all the job opportunities were reflective of the stereotypical perception of Blacks that had infected the whole consciousness of the country,” he once shared. “I came with an inability to do those things. It just wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.”

And while work was slow to come in the 1950s, he would not succumb to Senator Joe McCarthy’s efforts to silence those in Hollywood he labeled “communists.” So, in the era known as McCarthyism, he refused to sign loyalty oaths and believed that he suffered professionally because of it. But, as the nation found itself in a whirlwind of change, film began reflecting the times. In that climate, Poitier thrived as Hollywood began exploring a new racial dynamic. 

For one of his most well-known films In the Heat of the Night (1967), he insisted that his character Detective Virgil Tibbs return the slap he receives from a white man. “I’m going to slap him back,” he told the studio United Artists beforehand.  In a 2013 interview, Poitier explained that had he not returned that slap, “I would’ve been insulting every Black person in the world.”

Not everyone viewed his roles positively. Some even dubbed him Hollywood’s “ebony saint” and accused him of being an Uncle Tom. When asked about criticisms of his work, he once responded, “If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional.”

Off-screen, Poitier did use his power and influence to support civil rights efforts. In the 1960s, he and longtime friend Harry Belafonte raised $70,000, instead of the requested $50,000, in emergency funding for SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), flying to Greenwood, Mississippi to personally deliver the funds to leader Stokely Carmichael, even attracting the unwanted attention of the Ku Klux Klan. Poitier also personally attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was generally supportive of Dr. King’s efforts. Regarding Poitier’s support of civil and human rights, Dr. King noted in 1967 that “[Poitier] is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”

During this time, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. also set up hearings to address the lack of opportunities for Black people and others in the film industry. Although Poitier, himself, was well established in the industry and doing quite well—making at least one film a year, he showed up when so many others did not. During his appearance, he highlighted the racial disparities in the industry by using his own unique status as an example. “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 said.

Poitier, who, again, was very intentional about the roles he took, also made films dealing with apartheid and colonialism in Africa, started with the 1951 anti-apartheid film, Cry, the Beloved Country. Other films included Something of Value (1957) which dealt with Kenya’s anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising, as well as The Mark of the Hawk, also known as Accused (1957), which explored tensions as political challenges were being made against British colonial rule in Africa. Later, in his career, post-apartheid, he would earn an Emmy nomination for playing Nelson Mandela in the TV movie Mandela and de Klerk (1997).  

Off-screen, his support of the African Student Airlift to America program, commonly referred to as the Kennedy Airlift, helped numerous East African students study in the United States. In all, 800 students benefitted from the program before it ended in 1963. One of those students was future president Barack Obama’s father. In many ways, his character Dr. John Prentice’s predication in Poitier’s classic 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner that his interracial union would produce the future president of the United States became reality.  

Often forgotten is also the important role the legendary actor played behind the camera as a director. When he directed the hit 1980 film, Stir Crazy, starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, he became the first Black director to have a film gross $100 million at the box office. Throughout the 1970s, he established a solid track record for comedies with Black audiences, directing and starring, alongside Bill Cosby, in the 1970s classics Uptown Saturday NightLet’s Do It Again, and A Piece of the Action. With his 1971 directorial debut Buck and the Preacher, in which he starred alongside friends Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, he put his own spin on Westerns long before The Harder They Fall captivated audiences. Showing his romantic side while also raising awareness about an important disease disproportionately affecting Black people, he directed the 1973 film, A Warm December, starring as a man in love with a woman suffering from sickle cell anemia.   

“As an artist and filmmaker, I must make my films for someone. I try not to displease anyone, but I have to have a fix on the people whom I’m trying to please,” he explained in his November 1977 EBONY cover story“Sidney Poitier: What’s His Secret For Staying on Top in Hollywood?” “White, Brown and Yellow people are not necessarily accustomed to supporting Black films because they don’t find enough of their own identification in them. So, the sole underpinning of support for Black films is if the Black community responds favorably.”

Recognizing his pivotal role in opening the door to Hollywood wider for other Black people prompted him to serve as both mentor and friend, in addition to inspiration and example, to the many who followed, including Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and Tyler Perry. Accepting his lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1992, Poitier let them know how pleased he was by their arrival while gently encouraging them to make it count.                                                          

“Welcome, young Blacks,” he said. “Those of us who go before you glance back with satisfaction and leave you with a simple trust: Be true to yourselves and be useful to the journey.”

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