Sidney Poitier’s message of success

Sidney Poitier appears on the red carpet of the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, March 2, 2014.


valerie macon image / Agence France-Presse / Getty

My late parents, who divorced in the 1970s while their three children were still in school, disagreed on something. But they did agree on Sidney Poitier, who passed away last week at the age of 94.

For mother, men are not more beautiful. To both my parents, the actor exuded charm, grace, and decency. They’re idealizing a celebrity they don’t even know. But for the millions of blacks of Poitier’s generation, when dignified depictions of blacks in motion pictures were still scarce, his most famous roles were – the detective in “In the” Heat of the Night,” the teacher in “To Sir, With Love,” the doctor in “Guess who’s going to have dinner,” the curator in “Lilies of the Field” – pointed out how a man Blacks should carry themselves.

Poitier’s heyday was the 1960s, and it can be argued that these positive portraits of the black man helped change attitudes against Jim Crow almost as much as the protests and weeks of protests. led by civil rights activists. Groups like the NAACP care so much about how black people are portrayed in the entertainment industry, which they associate with how black people self-edit on a daily basis. It is still common to describe someone as “regardless of his race”.

Poitier was well aware that he operated under a microscope and that his actions would reflect, fairly or unfairly, on other black people. In his 1980 memoir, “This Life,” he said that he accepted an invitation to participate in the 1964 Academy Awards, where he became the first black artist to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. best, because he “felt it would be good for every black person to see themselves competing for top honors. “He didn’t expect to win, but he felt a heavy responsibility to say something that wouldn’t embarrass black people if he did. “I’m not going up there looking dumbfounded,” he wrote. “Whatever I say must be the truth. . . and it has to be something clever and dramatic that will leave the people in that room and the millions watching at home — leaving them with an exact and unchanging impression. ”

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He sees his award as a victory for all blacks. “I’m happy for me, but I’m also happy for ‘everyone,’ ‘ he wrote. “We made it. We blacks did it. We had the ability. Sometimes we forget that, having to persevere against unforeseen odds, we have the even more limitless possibility that the culture is still willing to take credit for our account. ”

However, the culture has changed as the decade has passed. The civil rights movement became more combative and black attitudes worsened towards the kinds of roles that made Poitier’s career. He is called Uncle Tom and his minions. The

New York Times

began publishing articles with catchy titles like “Why Do White Americans Love Sidney Poitier So Much?” One black culture critic called him “the million dollar shoe boy”.

Poitier’s acting career never fully recovered. The movie “Blaxploitation,” in which black protagonists beat up white criminals, was popular in the 1970s and was loved by black audiences. In the 1980s, Poitier turned to acting and focused on directing. The civil rights movement also flourished. The Old Guardian, personified by such famous figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Roy Wilkins, urged blacks to adopt the habits and sensibilities of the middle class associated with roles that catapulted Poitier to stardom. In addition to attracting white support, the mindset that black self-development is as important as the fight for equality itself, just needs blacks to be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities. new when equal rights have been guaranteed.

To the detriment of the black class, a younger generation of black activists and intellectuals removed all focus from black behavior as “respectable politics,” which they considered often. But hard work, respect for power, and delayed gratification are not race-specific values. In a free-market democracy, they are the path to upward mobility for all groups. Today, the left continues to ignore the role of antisocial behavior in perpetuating racial inequality. Elites talk about policy instead of crime, standardized tests instead of study habits, poverty instead of family formation, wealth redistribution instead of work ethic. In an earlier era, black leaders knew better.

Sidney Poitier is indeed being celebrated for his pioneering performances, but his legacy goes beyond that. He tried, with some success, to change the perception of all blacks at a time when that was so important. The country owes him a debt of gratitude.

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Appears in print January 12, 2022. Sidney Poitier’s message of success

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