Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. Why don’t we just say that?

Someone I follow posted this today, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Actually, that was the first part of a two-tweet series, finishing with this. But I initially only saw the first one, and I reacted this way:

Which of course is why all forms of Identity Politics are a very bad idea. Because they cause people to forget that we’re all just people…

I realize that wasn’t where she was going with that, but it’s where I went. Partly because I’m always down on that harmful phenomenon. But also because I was irritated earlier this week when I saw this headline from Variety:

Losing Sidney Poitier Reminds Us That Only Four Black Men Have Won Best Actor

My irritation arises from more than that headline. Perhaps you’ve noticed, perhaps you hadn’t, but we get a lot of headlines like that these days. Every story written about, say, the latest award nominations, tends to center on whether this was a good year or a bad year, based on how many Asian female directors were recognized. (Or something like that. Maybe just female directors or Asian directors or directors “of color,” to broaden the field somewhat…) So this is just another in that series.

And no, that is not what losing Sidney Poitier makes us think about — not if we appreciated Sidney Poitier.

That’s because Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. To cite Donne, his loss makes us all “the lesse.” His accomplishments were not, as would have been said in his early career, something you had to say “Negro actor” to acknowledge. He was just a great actor, period.

Take away the fact that he was black, and that’s what you’ve got left. And it’s enough, more than enough, for reflecting upon his prodigious talent, and being thankful for it.

You want to recognize the struggles he had as a black man? Certainly, do so. You want to talk about his political activism? Great, let’s do that — in a separate discussion. But you don’t immediately drop the subject of Sidney Poitier, remarkable human being, to start counting how many actors with dark skin have won a particular Oscar. That indicates you’re thinking of him as “oh, that famous black guy” instead of the talent he was.

Anyway, I’ll drop that for now, and turn to a more worthy subject: I need to go out and find the Sidney Poitier movies I haven’t seen, and watch them and enjoy them. I’m realizing I’ve seen too few of them, and that’s good news: I have a lot of enjoyment ahead of me.

For instance, I haven’t seen either “Lilies of the Field” or “Raisin in the Sun.” So I’m looking forward to those. And after listening to a discussion of it on NPR the other day, I want to check out “No Way Out.” And yes, I’ll be careful not to accidentally watch the one with Kevin Costner (which, unfortunately, is way easier to find on streaming services).

At this point, I’d compose a Top Five list, but that would be ridiculous when you consider the important films I haven’t seen yet. So maybe later.

Among those I’ve seen, there’s… “The Defiant Ones,” which personally I found forgettable. (I find most Tony Curtis movies forgettable. Chain even Sidney Poitier to Tony Curtis, and you have a problem with me.) I probably ought to go back and watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” I’ve seen it, but it’s not a favorite. (I remember the point of it being, Let’s see how liberal and broad-minded Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy really are, which seemed to me a thin premise for feature length.)

My faves include “In the Heat of the Night” and the lesser-known sequel, “They Call Me MISTER Tibbs.” (I haven’t seen the third in the trilogy — in fact, I just this moment learned that there was a trilogy.)

But my Number One is so far above those that it’s a separate category. That’s “To Sir With Love.”

Hey, I’m a child of the ’60s. I’ve gotta love that one. Right, Lulu? And I do. If I did a Top Five of that decade, I’m pretty sure it would make the list.

Let’s cut away for a clip…

11 thoughts on “Sidney Poitier was AWESOME. Why don’t we just say that?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, being a former movie reviewer (long, long ago), I should be able to explain in some detail HOW Poitier was “awesome.”

    But with COVID and all, I just didn’t have the energy.

    He was, though — and in one of those je ne sais quoi ways that every director, and the more perceptive members of the audience, could see the moment he walked into a scene and said a line or two.

    It was a presence. Something he carried around with him. Like Cary Grant, or Katharine Hepburn, or Jimmy Stewart. He stood out powerfully as an individual person…

    1. Ken

      That “je ne sais quoi” —

      Or maybe you sais perfectly well. Maybe it was because he was poised, graceful, well-spoken and had the sort of Gregory Peck gravitas that emanated and demanded respect. And therefore wasn’t — in the eyes of White audiences — the sort of TYPICAL Black man you either had no respect for or perhaps even feared? In other words, he was the kind of Black man White folk wanted all Black folks to be like.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, that’s an observation that’s been made thousands of times. In fact, my man Joe said something like that about another fellow we know: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

        Doesn’t matter. Poitier had qualities that most of the world — black, white, what have you — simply don’t possess. He was extraordinary…

  2. bud

    Which of course is why all forms of Identity Politics are a very bad idea.

    If having a desire for leaders that reflect the racial and gender diversity of the country is Identity Politics then count me as a proud practitioner of identity politics. With all the very real problems we’re facing now with regard to voter suppression and income inequality why focus on something that really isn’t a problem? The real problem is social justice. Sadly so many people who are invested in white male privilege conflate social justice and equity concerns with some esoteric notion of identity politics. Which of course gives cover to white supremacists and Trump supporters.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Why not queen?

      I could go for that. Her Majesty has been having to deal with a lot of stupid mess — Randy Andy and such — that no lady her age should even have to think about.

      Bring in Lulu. She’s only 73…

      Since I backed her rise, I hope she will make me chancellor. I always thought I’ve be good at that. Several decades ago, I acted in “The Lion in Winter” on a local stage. I was Geoffrey, the smart one, the son who should have become king after Henry II, but never had a shot.

      A bit of dialogue I still recall. At this point I was speaking to my mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, about my creepy little brother John:

      And that’s to be the king.

      And I’m to be his chancellor. Has he told you?

      John will rule the country while I run it. That is to say, he gets to spend the taxes that I raise.

      The queen says, “How nice for you.”

      To which I respond with my punchline: “It’s not as nice as being king.”

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Something that occurs to me — Identity Politics folks would say it occurs to me “as an old guy.” But whatever…

    Forget race. Let’s talk age.

    You’ll notice that when we cite Poitier’s best work, we generally don’t mention anything after, say, 1967 — the year that gave us “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” AND “To Sir, with Love.”

    After that, I ask you to quickly name a “Sidney Poitier vehicle.” There basically aren’t any. There are movies he was IN, but nothing that we went to see because HE was in it.

    They say actresses lose their marketability as they age (and generally, they do), but is this a case of it happening with a man?

    To some extent, perhaps. You don’t find many — some, but not many — boffo films that center around Cary Grant or Robert Redford after they got all wrinkly.

    But I also think Poitier simply became less remarkable, as society changed. When you look at the subjects films were addressing in the 60s — and yep, a lot of them had to do with Identity (this would shock the “woke” children, who think they discovered social injustice) — there were fewer standout roles for which he was absolutely perfect, and central.

    And I think a lot of casting directors were saying things like what Ken repeated above — they were thinking, Hey, let’s give that role to somebody blacker — whatever that meant to them.

    Poitier was great, but he also came along at a time when his special qualities were in high demand. And that time passed…


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