If someone were to ask me who the greatest American movie star is, I would give them the same response every time. And that will never change since the solution is straightforward. Sidney Poitier is considered to be the greatest American cinema star of all time. Do you mean the most famous Black movie star of all time? I don’t believe it. Is it possible that I’m being controversial? Confrontational? Contrarian? No. I’m merely stating the facts of the situation.
Who was able to do more with less? Who was it that was both less and more expected of? When it came to his person, his expertise and, ultimately, his people, who had more eyes and more daggers directed his way? Who had more aspirations and fears and intents targeted his way? Race should not be a factor in this situation. But it has to be done because Hollywood has made his race a point of contention. Movie after movie urged that he play the role of the Black man for white America, which he accepted without complaint. He was a Black man. Sidney Poitier, on the other hand, was completely taken aback by the amount of emphasis his popularity put on the word “man.”
I think with all my heart that Mr. Poitier was as important in the adventure of freedom and equality for Black Americans — in the quest for personhood — as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, as Martin Luther King Jr., and that he deserves the highest honour. He was a direct descendent of Frederick Douglass’s rhetorical genius, and he uttered the words of white people, but he did it from his own voice. His projected image spawned a galaxy of other Black performers who perform in a variety of roles that are as varied and tiered as a shopping mall.
For black artists in our nation, history has bestowed upon them a weird and amusing burden. Their job must progress; they must answer questions, question answers, sit with and not know answers. To take up a challenge, to take a chance. Not just to do more, but also to do the most often. It must also be able to counteract and dispel; it must be able to undo. Mr. Poitier was the greatest saviour of American art.
While watching a movie, African-American characters were shown as cheerful statues – carrying baggage, serving meals, caring for children — who were designed to embellish the fantasies of white Americans. It is possible that acting will be a traumatic experience. Poitier came in the United States at the beginning of the civil rights movement, just in time to free the Black image from the confines of the antebellum and minstrelsy periods of the nineteenth century. He wasn’t the first one to make an attempt.
For Mr. Poitier’s gallery of highly educated individuals to be acceptable for admittance into white people’s houses, they had to be seductively charming and appealing to Black people who were concerned that he would consider himself too fine for dinner at their home. Those were the same questions in 1958 that were still relevant half a century later when the United States performed an experiment to determine what level of Blackness should be considered proper for a president. Mr. Poitier was punctual in a cultural sense, much like Barack Obama.
We may safely infer, however, that he might have been somewhat larger than he really was. But he also managed to grow to the size that he did, which is remarkable in and of itself. He had the finest years in 1967 and 1968 of anybody in the world. Three box-office hits — “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” — two of which were fighting for best picture Oscar nominations (“Heat” won), and Oscar nominations for two of his co-stars — have been released.
However, let us add some cynical pressure on the situation. What do the individuals who elevated Sidney Poitier to number 22 on the list of the greatest performers of all time feel justifies his inclusion at all on the list? There were a total of 49 individuals aboard the boat, with a 50/50 ratio between males and women. He is the only non-white individual in the group. It’s possible that Mr. Poitier’s legacy may be reduced to nothing more than his firstness even today.
Every inch of his lengthy physique was necessary for the acting he performed — for exuberance, ecstasy, caution, seriousness, and fury, to name a few emotions. Neither a Sidney Poitier character nor any of his other characters have ever danced with any degree of success. (If he decides to cut a rug, you should be prepared with a tourniquet). Despite this, all of his characters go forward gracefully and with composure. Some of this is due to his training; he was our most well-known Black Method actor at the time. The rest is all up to him. He choreographed it all himself, right down to the clinched fists and mid-promenade pivots, the column clutching and the thrown-open arms. These were distinctive motions, as if a celebrity were putting exclamatory punctuation marks all over his body while walking in cursive. This is the symbol of all that this nation has always claimed to strive to be.