Upon the announcement of Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier’s demise, I sent out a tweet that featured my favourite photograph of him. The photograph in query exhibits a shirtless Poitier, carrying darkish sun shades like Miles Davis on the quilt of ’Spherical About Midnight, enjoying the saxophone alongside jazz man Sonny Stitt, whereas standing on the street, surrounded by a neighborhood of appreciative onlookers, in any other case referred to as “the folks”. The explanation I dig this photograph a lot is as a result of it presents a extra complicated picture of Poitier than the one which had come to outline him on the top of his fame in Hollywood. I’ve by no means been capable of verify the context of this photograph, however I’ve at all times assumed that it was taken whereas he was getting ready for his function because the expatriate horn participant within the movie Paris Blues. Regardless of the circumstances, although, the picture itself suggests an authenticity, a sure road credibility that’s rather more complicated than the conveniently integrationist symbolism that his persona has so usually been decreased to.
By the late Nineteen Sixties Sidney Poitier was the largest field workplace attract America. With films like Within the Warmth of the Evening, To Sir With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his movies had grow to be their very own style. Carrying out this was no small feat. When Poitier started his profession, most films that includes predominantly Black casts had been musicals. Black males who appeared in in any other case all-white movies tended to be represented as inarticulate, child-like buffoons; racial clowns who scratched once they didn’t itch and laughed when nothing was humorous. Poitier’s rise to the highest of the Hollywood mountain modified this. He was usually the lone Black particular person shifting by way of hostile white areas. His refined, erudite and dignified picture was a counter to the coonery and buffoonery that figures like Stepin’ Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Willie Greatest had beforehand represented. Like so many elite mid-century jazz musicians, Poitier wished folks to see him as an artist, not as a stereotypical entertainer. And on this he succeeded.
When maybe his most well-known character, Virgil Tibbs from Within the Warmth of the Evening, demanded that the racist southern white cops put some respect on his identify, “They name me Mister Tibbs!” Poitier was like Muhammad Ali who had demanded the identical factor within the ring and in actual life. Within the movie, the character of Endicott took offense to the truth that the “uppity” Tibbs had really spoken to him as an equal, as a substitute of just like the fawning obsequious idiot that he anticipated him to be. So, Endicott slaps Tibbs throughout the face for getting out of what he perceived to be his place. However faster than the blink of an eye fixed, Tibbs responded in sort, slapping the style out of Endicott’s mouth, because it had been. The “slap heard around the world” – this legendary cinematic second when Poitier’s stardom afforded his character the chance to retaliate towards a white man with out worry of retribution – demonstrated that simply because he was identified for enjoying these correct gents on display, he may nonetheless deal with his enterprise, if want be.
Poitier’s picture in movie has usually been related to that of Dr Martin Luther King Jr; Poitier gained the Academy Award for greatest actor the identical yr that King gained the Nobel prize. However on this occasion, when Tibbs slapped Endicott again, the character that he would most be related to demonstrated that there have been a number of layers to his complicated persona. He could have reminded some of MLK, however within the late 60s when the civil rights motion was being challenged by assertions of Black Energy, Virgil Tibbs didn’t flip the opposite cheek. Right here he had extra in widespread with Malcolm X than he did with Dr King, regardless of what his measured persona could have lead some folks to consider.
Seeing Within the Warmth of the Evening as a child left an indelible imprint on my grownup thoughts. Being a distinguished gentleman didn’t imply accepting humiliation, actually or figuratively. Demanding that these celluloid racists respect him and exhibiting them that he may maneuver in a selection of methods stated to me that being well-rounded and multidimensional, defying categorization, mixing supreme mind with authenticity was certainly the best way to go. That is what Tibbs, Poitier’s bigger cinematic persona, and particularly that photograph of him enjoying the sax in his shades, surrounded by Blackness, got here to face for.
A few years after I initially noticed Poitier on this groundbreaking movie, I had the distinct pleasure of assembly him. Within the late Nineteen Nineties Poitier was the graduation speaker on the USC Faculty of Cinematic Arts the place I’ve spent the final 30 years of my skilled life. Watching him as a child, the lone Black man navigating labyrinthine white areas, was similar to the occupational life I discovered myself dwelling within the rarified areas of academia. Exhibiting a gentlemanly method coexisted alongside an understanding that not everybody agreed that I really belonged in such an elite area. Like Virgil Tibbs, I might be diplomatic, however as that hilarious malt liquor advert from the Nineteen Eighties stated, “Don’t let the sleek style idiot you.”
Standing on the commencement stage in full tutorial regalia, as I positioned a PhD hood on a newly graduated doctoral candidate, eager about how the individuals who created all of this larger training pomp and circumstance most definitely by no means imagined that a cat like me can be representing on this manner, I rotated to see Poitier approaching me, along with his hand prolonged, smiling broadly. His phrases, “Good to satisfy you, Dr” echoed as I shook his hand. As we stood there, I absorbed the magnitude of the second. He supplied a number of compliments and pleasantries, as gracious in life as that of his persona. We shared a realizing snigger. However this was Sidney Poitier, not Virgil Tibbs. He understood what this all meant, and so did I. Issues which might be understood usually needn’t be articulated.
Sidney Poitier was a large of American tradition. He stands as one of an important figures within the historical past of Hollywood, with out query. The monumental legacy of Poitier’s type is clear in people who he influenced. Be it the profession of up to date Hollywood royalty Denzel Washington, or that of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama. Sidney Poitier, the distinguished gentleman of cinema was groundbreaking, inspirational, cool, complicated and genuine as nicely. The period he represented is lengthy gone, however the basis he laid is one we’re nonetheless constructing on. Relaxation in energy!