Film

Sidney’s Eminence: Behold Poitier Smuggling Reality Into American Movies

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In a cover story about his friend Sidney Poitier for the July 23, 1968, issue of Look, James Baldwin wrote, “[I]t can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate, and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.” Baldwin’s essay, published at the zenith of the performer’s career, gets at the ineluctable bind that Poitier often found himself in: Hollywood’s first major black star, he was frequently cast as a paragon of moral rectitude, playing martyrs and saintly integrationist heroes, such as the protagonists in two films from 1967, James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. These characters, and others, exhibit, as Baldwin notes, a “fundamental impulse to decency that…reassures the white audience.”

But the deft, agile, alert actor deepened his roles by — as Baldwin put it — “smuggling in reality,” his gestures and inflections acknowledging the far more complicated and painful realities of black life. It’s precisely this quality that’s the focus of MoMI’s nine-film tribute to Poitier, organized by Mia Mask, a professor at Vassar and the co-editor of the 2015 collection Poitier Revisited: Reconsidering a Black Icon in the Obama Age. Significantly, this nonet doesn’t include the two movies mentioned above — or Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963), featuring Poitier as a handyman who builds a chapel for a group of Mitteleuropean nuns, a role for which he became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Rather, this tightly curated series brings together those titles that best demonstrate the performer’s “dangerous electricity that is rare indeed and lights up everything for miles around,” in Baldwin’s words, including three films that Poitier both directed and starred in.

Born in 1927 in Miami, Poitier grew up in the Bahamas and returned to the Florida city when he was fifteen. Two years later, he moved to New York, where he joined the American Negro Theater. (Alums of ANT include the actor’s future co-stars Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee; the latter appeared in five films with Poitier, including Daniel Petrie’s 1961 screen adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, in which they reprise the husband-and-wife roles they played in Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 play.) He first appeared on Broadway in 1946 in an all-black production of Lysistrata; in 1950, Poitier made his screen debut in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), playing Luther Brooks, a physician at a city hospital who must treat Richard Widmark’s racist sociopath and his dying criminal-accomplice brother.

Only 23 at the time, Poitier rivets the moment he steps into the frame of this strange hybrid of noir and message movie: Impeccably dressed in suit and tie (as the actor would often be onscreen, the attire instantly signaling “respectability”), the young doctor warmly greets the elevator operator, one of the few other black faces at his place of employment, before changing into his medical scrubs. “I’m not sure of myself yet…. I think I need a little more time than the others,” the intern tells his kindly white supervisor. There’s not a trace of self-abasement in Poitier’s delivery; the words ring as a calm, honest assessment. Though Luther must exhibit superhuman fortitude, as most Poitier characters had to, No Way Out also features scenes of Luther at home, episodes marked by tremendous tenderness between the doctor and his wife, to whom he more nakedly expresses his vulnerability and weariness.

That domestic and marital warmth also permeates the West Harlem apartment shared by Poitier’s Tommy Tyler, a dock foreman, and his spouse, Lucy, played by Dee, in Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957). Yet the central dyad of the film consists of Tommy and Axel (John Cassavetes), a rookie longshoreman plagued by neuroses and looked after by the seasoned stevedore. Among the first movies to center on an interracial friendship, one in which a black man serves as a mentor to a white one, Edge of the City astounds — at least until Tommy’s inevitable final-act sacrifice — with Poitier’s multilayered depiction of empathy. “It’s important to me what happens to you,” Tommy tells his anxious pal, who shares his woes to his new confidant late one night at a bar. In this scene and others, Tommy largely remains silent, intent only on listening. Poitier registers profound compassion, in one of the most touching displays of platonic love I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the actor’s most iconic role, Virgil Tibbs — the Philadelphia-based homicide expert inadvertently on assignment in the Deep South in Norman Jewison’s murder mystery In the Heat of the Night (1967) — also stays tight-lipped for prolonged periods. Here, though, the silence is a sign of contempt for the bungling peckerwood cops and denizens of Sparta, Mississippi. Once again immaculate in a suit, Poitier’s character shows not even a bead of sweat, even in the early-September swelter. On the contrary, Virgil is all tightly controlled, icy fury — a third rail of “dangerous electricity,” his power surging in apartheid-era America.

‘Sidney Poitier’

Museum of the Moving Image

April 9–17