How Sidney Poitier’s work pushed past white limitations on Black talent

Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier has died at the age of 94. Poitier transformed how Black characters were portrayed on screen and became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance. Throughout his life, the star carved a path for generations of black actors to come. Geoff Bennett looks back at his life and legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported tonight, Oscar- winning actor Sidney Poitier has died at the age of 94.

    Throughout his life, the star carved a path for generations of Black actors to come.

    Geoff Bennett has our remembrance.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Sidney Poitier transformed how Black characters were portrayed on screen, and became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance.

    For more on his life, I'm joined by Jacqueline Stewart, the chief artistic and programming officer for the New Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. She is a professor of film and media studies at the University of Chicago and host of "Silent Sunday Nights" on Turner Classic Movies.

    It's great to have you with us.

    And Sidney Poitier was dignified, he was elegant, he was regal. He was known for playing characters who really jumped off the screen. But before we talk about his cinematic and cultural legacies, help us understand his journey to stardom. He was born in the Bahamas, before moving to Harlem, and facing this sort of hardscrabble life of an actor.

    Jacqueline Stewart, New Academy Museum of Motion Pictures: No, that's absolutely right.

    He really did struggle to become an actor. It wasn't something that was obvious, given his impoverished background in the Bahamas. It's really, I think, gratifying to see the ways that he took all of those hardships he faced, really working odd jobs in New York, trying to figure out a way that he was going to achieve his professional vision.

    And it's a really miraculous story just at the level of how he entered the theater and then became such an important film star.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Poitier was the embodiment of a proud and dignified Black perspective in the American conversation about race.

    During the civil rights movement, and, by 1967, as you know, he was Hollywood's top earning leading man. He played a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in Mississippi. He played Virgil Tibbs, "In the Heat of the Night," a man righteous enough to slap in return the white politician who had slapped him.

    Take a look at this.

  • Sidney Poitier, Actor:

    Was Mr. Colbert ever in this greenhouse, say, last night about midnight?

    (SLAPPING)

  • Actor:

    Gillespie?

  • Rod Steiger, Actor:

    Yes.

  • Actor:

    You saw it?

  • Rod Steiger:

    I saw it.

  • Actor:

    Well, what are you going to do about it?

  • Rod Steiger:

    I don't know.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So how did that resonate in the moment, a Black man slapping back the white man who slapped him?

  • Jacqueline Stewart:

    Ooh, it was an incredibly powerful moment. And I would say it was an important moment, not just for white audiences, but for Black audiences as well.

    One of the things I think is so important about that scene is that we see Gillespie, Rod Steiger's reaction to the slap, his visual reaction and then his expression: I don't know what to do.

    It's a moment where white supremacy is being questioned and challenged. And that was tremendously significant to people, this idea that — I think, so for so many folks, people think of Sidney Poitier as this sort of harbinger of a kind of assimilationist or accommodationist point of view.

    But that scene demonstrates that he was also someone who was representing this fury that was raging in so many Black communities and this tipping point that we're not going to take it anymore. And so that was hugely important to audiences across the racial spectrum.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And then there was his role in "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" is Dr. John Prentice. He was half of this interracial couple, and he had to tell his disapproving father that times had really changed.

  • Sidney Poitier:

    I'm your son. I love you. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And I want to ask you more about the scrutiny he faced, because Poitier was — he was often hailed as this noble symbol of his race who took these sanitized roles, which drew criticism from some that he took these roles that in many ways were pandering to white audiences.

    You hear him say there: "I don't think of myself as a colored man."

    There are of lots of Black folks who would say that is a choice not available to many.

  • Jacqueline Stewart:

    That's right.

    Yes, I think what's important is to really look at the more nuanced aspects of what Poitier was doing across his career. He was so selective with the roles that he took, he understood the limitations of what was possible for Black actors in Hollywood during that time.

    And it seems to me that he was always trying to squeeze out as much, the word you used a lot, dignity and respect and adding aspects to these performances that I don't think many audiences really understood, whether they were championing him or criticizing him.

    So, when he says, "You think of yourself as a colored man," that's a generational thing that he's pointing to in that speech, that his father is from an older time. He's not saying that, I'm not a Black man, which is not the same thing as being a colored man.

    I think that part of what the point of that scene is, is opening up a space for Black people to think about themselves in ways beyond the white limitations that had been placed on them.

    And I think now, when we look back at a scene like that, we can see that there's something much more complex going on than, say, some simple rejection of his racial identity.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    How would you capture his contributions to the culture?

  • Jacqueline Stewart:

    He was hugely influential.

    I mean, this is an actor who really changed the minds of many white people about Black people, of seeing Black people as complex human beings. And he also was a figure who paved the way for so many generations of Black actors to follow.

    There were very few models for him, but he has been the model for Denzel Washington and so many others who have followed.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jacqueline Stewart, thanks so much for joining us as we remember the life and many contributions of Sidney Poitier.

  • Jacqueline Stewart:

    My pleasure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sidney Poitier, no one like him.

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