Recently I was surfing the Caribbean — that is, surfing Caribbean-affiliated websites for a class assignment about Cuban cinema — when I discovered something fascinating: This week, the University of the Bahamas is hosting the five-day Sidney Poitier International Conference and Film Festival. It’s not the location of this conference that I’m excited about, since Poitier is a Bahamian-American, and if there was going to be an elaborate conference in his honor, that’s where it would be. No, the exciting part is the fact that a Poitier conference is taking place at all.
How many other screen actors can you name, living or dead, whose careers would necessitate such an elaborate retrospective? I can’t think of any myself, and if any similar conferences have taken place to analyze someone else’s life’s work, I would go so far as to deem them superfluous. No, only Poitier, with his cemented position as the first bankable black box-office star in American film history and his inner turmoil over betraying his race by allowing himself to be typecast as the “saintly Negro,” can fuel such debate and post-retirement appreciation from film scholars and audiences alike.
If you’re a fan of old Hollywood films from the ’50s and ’60s, and/or if you’ve read Mark Harris’s amazing Hollywood history book “Pictures at a Revolution,” you’ll know Poitier as the star of mostly race-centered melodramas like “Lilies of the Field,” “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Throughout the majority of his career, the actor was being used primarily as a symbol, the physical embodiment of white liberal guilt.
The Hollywood idealists of the Civil Rights era, like “Dinner” director Stanley Kramer, were desperate to make movies depicting black characters as the exact opposite of every racial stereotype that had been perpetuated up until that point. So instead of poor, uneducated and jive-talking, the characters Poitier played tended to be far smarter, politer and more eloquent than his white co-stars. Which nevertheless represented radical progress; after all, his movies still couldn’t be shown in the South.
I don’t mean to besmirch Poitier’s legacy as a trailblazer for racial equality in the cinema. After all, someone had to be Sidney Poitier at that point in history if the movies wanted any hope of breaching segregation. But it’s because his role in history was so essential that I question whether Poitier was uniquely qualified to play it, or if he simply became this symbol by virtue of being the right black actor at the right time. In other words, maybe Poitier wasn’t respected as an actor for the content of his character, but rather for the color of his skin.
To be fair, though, our common perception of Poitier’s onscreen career is only based off of the work he did prior to 1967. That was the year he starred in Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night,” the gritty police drama in which he played a detective who has to partner up with Rod Steiger’s bigoted cop to solve a murder case in the Deep South. The film was revolutionary because it allowed Poitier to get mad, to show signs of humanity, to return a slap to his face from a hateful white man with a slap of equal magnitude. And the fact that it won Best Picture that year over “Coming to Dinner,” the poster child for a sappy, “saintly Negro” Poitier picture, made the symbolism of its victory all the sweeter.
Last August, Poitier — who’s been retired from the screen since 1997’s “The Jackal” — received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Maybe it’s just my cynicism talking, but I read his reception of the award as less of a genuine testament to his career than a giant mea culpa from America, via the federal government: “We’re sorry you had to play sexless, emotionless, idealized depictions of what we used to think black men should be like in order to pave the way for future actors of color. Here’s a medal to make up for it.”
Thankfully, the Bahamas conference will serve as the proper tribute to Poitier’s legacy. One glance at the speaker schedule reveals a fascinating array of topics to be discussed, including an essay linking the man’s celebrity to Will Smith and an entire day centered around his directing career (he helmed nine films between 1970 and 1990, no doubt bolstered by the success of “Heat of the Night”). And look, here’s Michigan’s own American Culture Ph.D. candidate, Charles Gentry, delivering a talk entitled, “ ‘A Revolutionary Process’: Sidney Poitier and Constructions of Blackness in Transnational Cinema, 1957-1964.” So it would appear that Poitier the man and Poitier the symbol are going to be celebrated in equal measure.
And there are many signs today that, despite his initial role as a pawn of the Hollywood agenda, Poitier has still had a profound impact on the ways we view race on film. At the very least, we can point to the fact that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was remade in 2005, in comedic form with the races reversed, and Poitier’s role was played by the noticeably white Ashton Kutcher. And America laughed. This week, I’m hoping Poitier can bask in the heat of the Bahaman night and admire how far we’ve all come, thanks at least in part to him.
For once, his admirers won’t call him the representation of black America. They’ll call him Mister Poitier.