The obituaries for Sidney Poitier, who died final week, on the age of ninety-four, inevitably led off together with his 1964 Academy Award for Best Actor. That Oscar, the primary within the class awarded to a Black actor, cemented Poitier because the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood, a watershed second for the Academy, for the films, and for generations of Black audiences. Years later, when accepting a lifetime-achievement award on the Golden Globes, Oprah Winfrey remembered being a ten-year-old woman, watching from her linoleum ground in Milwaukee: “Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was Black. And I’d never seen a Black man being celebrated like that. And I’ve tried many, many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl—a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone-tired from cleaning other people’s houses.” But profitable the Oscar was a extra sophisticated expertise for Poitier, who was already strolling a tightrope as Hollywood’s sole Black matinée idol (with the attainable addition of Harry Belafonte), and its symbolism turned extra curdled because the a long time handed.
Until then, just one Black actor had acquired a aggressive appearing Oscar: Hattie McDaniel, for her position as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). McDaniel had been typecast as sassy maids all through her profession, and the Oscar yoked her even tighter to a stereotype that was (happily) falling out of vogue. Poitier, who was born in 1927 and introduced up within the Bahamas, represented new prospects. His breakout position was in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), as a physician caring for a racist white affected person. The movie set the Poitier mould: a vibrant, clean-cut skilled whose distinctive talent and equanimity make him “acceptable” within the white world, and who is commonly certain by circumstance to a racist counterpart. This was an unlimited enchancment on the Mammy and Stepin Fetchit roles that preceded Poitier—and he had the megawatt charisma to tug it off—however it turned one other form of entice. His characters have been hardly ever in a position to present sexuality or anger. To keep his squeaky-clean picture, he took pains to maintain the general public from figuring out about his years-long extramarital affair with Diahann Carroll, whom he met whereas filming “Porgy and Bess,” launched in 1959. (Compare this with the endlessly publicized affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.) By then, he felt a heavy burden of illustration. “As I see myself, I’m an average Joe Blow Negro,” he instructed the Times. “But, as the cats say in my area, I’m out there wailing for us all.” That similar yr, he was nominated for an Oscar, for “The Defiant Ones,” during which he performs a runaway from a sequence gang who’s handcuffed to a white convict, performed by Tony Curtis. It was the primary Best Actor nomination for a Black man, however, as Curtis (who was additionally nominated) wrote in his autobiography, the voters “weren’t going to give an Oscar to a black man or a Jew.” He was proper: they each misplaced to David Niven, for “Separate Tables.” Like his character in “The Defiant Ones,” Poitier was handcuffed to a white business, neither in a position to transfer ahead with out the opposite.
The position that pushed him over the road was, surprisingly, in “Lilies of the Field,” a candy, laid-back film based mostly on a novella by William Edmund Barrett. Inspired by the Sisters of Walburga, who’d fled Hitler’s Germany to type an outpost within the wilds of Colorado, the ebook instructed the story of a Black itinerant handyman who stops close to a run-down rural convent, the place the nuns, believing that God has despatched him (“Gott ist gut,” one cries), conscript him to construct a chapel. Published in 1962, this straightforward story of frequent humanity mirrored the idealism of the Kennedy years, and who higher to headline the film model than Poitier? “I was being pushed to change the world as it related to me and mine,” he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, “This Life.” “I was being pushed to do the impossible.” (If you’re out there for a Poitier autobiography, by the best way, “This Life” is a lot dishier than his elder-statesman memoir, “The Measure of a Man.”) The movie was shot in fourteen days, on a shoestring finances, and it wears its politics flippantly; the critic Bosley Crowther wrote that Poitier’s character “could be a white man just as well.” But, in 1963, on the heels of the March on Washington, United Artists sensed a possibility to promote the film as a parable of tolerance. Poitier had attended the March amongst a cadre of film stars, together with Charlton Heston and Marlon Brando; Hollywood was nonetheless smarting from the blacklist period, and the business’s embrace of the March was, the Times noticed, an “indication that some creative leaders of the movie industry have decided it is time to rejoin the nation.”
“Lilies of the Field” opened in October, 1963, and was a modest success. Its come-together ethos was made extra pressing after the Kennedy assassination, whereas the movie was enjoying its second month at L.A.’s Egyptian Theatre. It expanded in December, with a “Calling All Churches” marketing campaign geared towards spiritual and civic golf equipment. Even so, Poitier refused to marketing campaign for an Oscar nomination, telling the columnist Sheilah Graham, “I’m an actor, not a politician.” Nevertheless, in late February, 1964, he was nominated for Best Actor. In Washington, President Johnson had taken up the Civil Rights Act, initiated by Kennedy. In February, it went to the Senate, the place a bunch of Southern legislators launched a filibuster that may final a unprecedented seventy-five days. If there was ever a time for Hollywood to select a aspect, it was then. Suddenly, “Lilies of the Field” turned, within the phrases of the Los Angeles Times’ Oscar forecast, “a tribute to a Negro in a Negro-conscious world.” So strongly did the city’s sense of righteousness unite round Poitier that one of his opponents, Paul Newman (“Hud”), introduced that he would skip the ceremony and help him.
Poitier seen himself as “a dark horse, so to speak,” and regarded not attending. Ultimately, he determined that “it would be good for black people to see themselves competing for the top honor,” he wrote, in “This Life.” As he sat within the viewers, sweating and alone, he was seized with the concern of profitable and saying one thing “dumb.” He recalled his interior monologue: “Think, Sidney, think, time is of the essence! Whatever I say must be the truth first, and it must be something intelligent and impressive that will leave the people in that room and the millions watching at home—leave them all duly and irrevocably impressed with the intelligence and decorum of one black actor, Sidney Poitier.” The line he got here up with, and delivered moments later, on the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, was laden with meanings: “Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people. . . .”
As the Times summed up the hoopla, “The outburst for Mr. Poitier was recognition not only of his talent, but also of the fact that Hollywood has felt guilty about color barriers of the past, some of which still exist here.” Poitier was uncertain. The day after the ceremony, he sat on a resort couch and instructed a reporter, “I like to think it will help someone. But I don’t believe my Oscar will be a sort of magic wand that will wipe away the restrictions on job opportunities for Negro actors.” In the Bahamas, the town of Nassau had a motorcade and an honorary banquet. In New York, the town declined requests for a ticker-tape parade, however Poitier was invited to City Hall to obtain a medallion from the mayor. When two reporters saved asking him about civil-rights points, he snapped again, “Why don’t you ask me human questions? Why is it everything you guys ask refers to the Negro-ness of my life and not my acting?” It was a uncommon occasion of his exasperation effervescent to the floor, and he instantly added that he had supposed no offense.
Poitier’s post-Oscar interval was fruitful however irritating. “I was now viewed as a fixture in the film world,” he wrote, “but my fellow black actors, almost to a man, were trapped in a drought of inactivity and unemployment that sapped and embittered whatever satisfaction they may have derived from the success of a single one of us.” As with McDaniel, the prize had ossified him, particularly as instances modified. In 1967, he starred in three movies, whose mixed box-office receipts made him the No. 1 star in America: “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Poitier, extremely, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for any of them, although his white co-stars Rod Steiger and Katharine Hepburn each gained.) In every, he performed a “civilized” Black man whose extraordinariness helps enlighten the regressive white characters who’re pressured into his firm. Perhaps no superstar may embody the cultural crosscurrents, however Poitier, at his top, discovered himself ripe for taking down. That September, the Times ran an astonishing column, by the Black author Clifford Mason, titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” Harking again to Poitier’s Oscar-winning position, Mason predicted that “until the day of complete honesty comes, white critics will gladly drag out a double standard and applaud every ‘advance’ in movies like ‘Lilies of the Field’ as so much American-style, democratic goodwill. Which is what the road to hell is paved with.”