You will see the same words repeated over and over again in articles honoring the passing of Sidney Poitier: defiant, cool, graceful, charming, dignified, resolute and full of integrity. But central to all the superlatives and accolades applied to him — iconic, legendary, once-in-a-generation — is one fact he never lost sight of: He was a human being. Just like James Baldwin, he made sure that the world knew he was “not your Negro.” In the process, he showed us all how to live on our own terms and do it with the aforementioned grace and dignity.
In his early films, Poitier’s Blackness was of paramount importance for the others in the movie to understand him, until due to the force of his humanity, they saw past the story of race and instead saw the human being before them. Case in point: The Defiant Ones from 1958. The film follows a couple of prisoners — one Black (Poitier), one white (Tony Curtis) — who are shackled together with heavy chains. The two men must cooperate if they have any hope to survive. The symbolism and themes couldn’t be more obvious for a nation resisting calls for integration.
Throughout the following decade, Poitier continued to star in films with a social message, work intended to confront the racist limitations of life in America for a Black man. Never more so than in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. In it, he plays Det. Virgil Tibbs from Philadelphia, who’s traveling across the Deep South when he’s stopped and arrested for being an unrecognizable Black man who has money in his pocket. When the local sheriff calls Philadelphia to see if this Black man is true to his word, he discovers that Tibbs is indeed a cop, an excellent detective to boot, and someone his boss thinks should stay in Mississippi to help the local cops solve their case.
Now partnered with a bigot lawman with a murder he can’t solve, Tibbs refuses to be diminished. Instead, Poitier’s character changes the shape of America’s future with a single slap.
The slap was something Poitier insisted be part of his performance. In fact, it was what he required in order to even appear in the film. He saw that originally he was to be slapped and take it, but that didn’t sit right with him. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Poitier shared how the slap came to be and why it was so important to him:
“The original scene called for the businessman to slap me, and for me to absorb it, and leave. I found it reprehensible that the writers, writing for that period, would not have written it differently. And I felt that the natural emotional response to being slapped — and I’m speaking not as Sidney Poitier, I’m speaking as a Philadelphia detective — the natural response to a man slapping him is, he’s going to slap him right back. And I elected, as an actor, to do that because if I were the guy from Philadelphia I would slap the guy right back.
“And I thought that because those kinds of moments were never found in American films, from the inception of films in this country, that kind of a scene, which would be electrifying on the screen, was always either avoided or not thought of, and I insisted, if they wished my participation in the film then, they would have to rewrite it to exemplify that. … So we did it, and it did, indeed, turn out to be a highlight moment in that film. But it also spoke not just of the two characters, but it spoke of our time, it spoke of the time in America when, in films at least, we could step up to certain realities.”
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Poitier recalled his introduction to the racism of America, as a 15-year-old when he came to the States from his native Bahamas. On Cat Island, where he was raised, he remembered that there were just two white people, so he had no conception of the structures that imposed lifetimes of racial inferiority on Black people in America, and elsewhere in the Bahamas. As such, when he arrived in Florida at 15, he was ill-prepared for the Jim Crow South. But he endured it, outlasted it and managed to get to New York, where he later became an actor. Yet, even then, he still had lessons to learn about race in America. Poitier told Oprah he credits the film Porgy and Bess with teaching him a valuable one: “That it is difficult to be your own man in America. There is a fierce requirement to adjust to circumstances.”
This is true for all men, not just Black men. But in Hollywood, there was almost no conception of a Black man who was just that — a man, and not a clown, a buffoon, a stereotype of some sort. As Poitier explained to Oprah, “Not only was I not going to do that, but I had in mind what was expected of me — not just what other Blacks expected but what my mother and father expected. And what I expected of myself.”
That expectation: “To walk through my life as my own man.”
To meet that criteria, Poitier refused any stereotyped casting. As Quincy Jones later said, Poitier “created and defined the African-American in film.” Along those lines, Poitier understood what he was doing and what it meant for him, for other Black performers, for Black people and for the rest of the country. Poitier told Oprah with no sense of false humility: “It’s been an enormous responsibility. And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”
This included being derided as an Uncle Tom by both the press and by his own people. In 1967, the same year that he made In the Heat of the Night, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” The writer, Clifford Mason, mused about Poitier and his value to the culture, but framed it as his value to white people: “There are two Sidney Poitiers. One is the man dedicated to the improvement of the Negro image in general and to rectifying the wrongs perpetrated against Black women in particular. The other is the Negro movie star that all white America loves. And why do they love him so? Because he’s a good actor? Partly. Because he’s worked hard to get where he is? Maybe. Because he stands for a proud, Black image, something all of us who are non-white have needed in this country for a long, long time? Nooooo.”
If his intent wasn’t clear enough, Mason continued, “[Poitier] thinks [his] films have really been helping to change the stereotypes that Black actors are subjected to. In essence, they are merely contrivances, completely lacking in any real artistic merit. In all of these films, he has been a showcase nigger, who is given a clean suit and a complete purity of motivation so that, like a mistreated puppy, he has all the sympathy on his side and all those mean whites are just so many Simon Legrees.”
In his conversation with Oprah, Poitier spoke to that time in his life, “It was hurtful. You cannot help but be hurt. It was far from the truth, but I understood the times. There was a public display of all the rage that [Blacks] had built up over centuries. If you examine the movies, the criticism I received was principally because I was usually the only Black in the movies. Personally, I thought that was a step! … But it was the times. Even Dr. King was branded an Uncle Tom because of the rage.”
In his memoir, Life Beyond Measure, Poitier wrote that he never saw himself in a mirror until he was 10 years old. Essentially, his sense of self didn’t come from the outside. To that end, when Terry Gross interviewed him, she asked him about his famous stare — cool and indignant, but also with a sense of menace, like, “You better think twice about messing with me.” Poitier explained to her, “I didn’t perfect that look, that look is — first of all, I don’t acknowledge that I have such a look, because I see myself differently than other people see me, obviously.”
“But is that a look that came from real life, or one that you developed for your acting roles?” Gross followed up, undeterred.
Poitier reiterated that there was no look, the look was him — what you saw in his eyes was his soul, “My acting roles are, at the core of themselves, a part of me. So whatever that look is — I cannot manufacture such a look. It comes out of those forces that are churning internally in the individual. So, I just have that look, I suppose, even when I’m thinking of things that are quite contrary to what the look might suggest. [Laughs] I just have that look.”
The world, of course, is better for him looking at it that way. But mostly because it belonged to him — a human being who would never allow the world to look at him any differently.