For much of the 20th century, Black America reserved a special term for its most esteemed public figures. They were “race men.” Sidney Poitier, who died Friday, at 94, may well have been the last. The concept no longer applies as it once did, in part because of how successful in the larger culture Poitier was.
A race man wasn’t defined just by being someone famous and successful. He was also conscious of presenting himself as an exemplar of probity and dignity. More than a role model, a race man was a living, breathing assertion that America might someday live up to its ideals.
Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Edward Brooke were race men. In manner, if not matter, Malcolm X was one, too.
Even as such individuals inspired other Black Americans, they took on a greater challenge, demonstrating through their conduct, character, and achievement not just the evil of white racism but its absurdity.
It may sound excessive to compare a movie star to leaders as important as King or Marshall. As it happens, Poitier, who participated in the 1963 March on Washington, would play Marshall in a two-part HBO movie, “Separate But Equal” (1991). Someone who understood why such a comparison makes sense was the novelist and essayist Albert Murray.
“The most radical thing that you can do,” Murray once said, “is to be a nice-looking, brown-skinned American guy, well-dressed, well-educated; that’s the most dangerous sonofabitch in the country!” Murray could have been describing Poitier, his impact and presence both.
With his carriage and bearing, his intelligence and clipped, elegant diction — don’t forget, of course, that almost-preposterous handsomeness — Poitier was the movie star’s movie star. How could Hollywood, and the America whose prejudices it catered to, have not allowed his stardom? Yet they had prevented that of numerous predecessors. Partly, Poitier couldn’t be held back because society was changing so much in the ’60s. As much, or more, it was because of Poitier himself. His stardom, in turn, made society change that much more.
Poitier was fourth-billed in his first credited role, playing a hospital resident who runs afoul of racism, in “No Way Out” (1950). The next year he was second-billed, playing a South African minister in an adaptation of Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country.” (Nearly half a century later, Poitier would play Nelson Mandela in a TV movie.) In what in retrospect seems like casting against type, he was a rebellious student in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955). Poitier and costar Tony Curtis played chain-gang escapees in “The Defiant Ones” (1957) and earned Oscar nominations for best actor. It was a sign of Poitier’s newfound stature that despite the fact his vocals had to be dubbed he was cast as Porgy in “Porgy and Bess” (1959).
Poitier dominated the ‘60s. There was no bigger star. There was no more ‘60s star: not Steve McQueen, not James Coburn, not Peter O’Toole. It was Poitier. They were about the ‘60s as pose. He was about the ‘60s as actuality. At the beginning of the ‘60s, Norman Mailer wrote a wildly laudatory essay about John F. Kennedy, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” A few years later, he could have written one about Poitier, “Superman Comes to the Screen.”
Poitier was in 16 movies released during the decade. He was the first Black man to win an Academy Award, as best actor, for “Lilies of the Field” (1963). He was in a prestigious stage adaptation (“A Raisin in the Sun,” 1961), a biblical movie (as Simon the Cyrene, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” 1965), a western (“Duel at Diablo,” 1966). Such variety was a function of range. It was a function of popularity. It was a function of what a star Poitier was.
His movie annus mirabilis was 1967. Just past the peak of the civil rights era, a Black actor starred in not one, not two, but three hit movies. One of them was pretty good. One was quite good. One was kind of embarrassing. Poitier’s presence made them all events. Tellingly, he plays authority figures in all three.
Poitier’s a teacher in “To Sir, with Love.” The fact it’s set in London made it no less a commentary on race in America. Even though Rod Steiger won a best actor Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night,” which also won best picture, it’s Poitier who dominates the proceedings, playing a Northern police detective who has to deal with a murder in Mississippi. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a leadenly well-intentioned drama about interracial marriage, Poitier’s sheer Poitier-ness gives the movie its rationale. How could Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, as parents of the prospective bride, object to a Black son-in-law when he’s played by someone as overwhelmingly impressive as, yes, Sidney Poitier?
People now think of Muhammad Ali — a kind of anti-race man — as the decade’s emblematic Black figure in popular culture. He wasn’t thought of that way at the time. It was Poitier. Ali, still commonly referred to as Cassius Clay, would remain controversial until well into the 1970s. By then, Poitier had turned to directing movies. A couple of Ali jokes even figure in one of them, “Let’s Do It Again” (1975). Part of what made the ‘60s such a cultural watershed was the increasing prominence of Black sports figures and singers and other actors. Motown and Stax, to cite the most obvious examples, were entering the mainstream. Poitier was the mainstream.
During the ‘70s, he acted less and turned to directing. In those movies, none of them all that notable, one can almost feel his sense of relief in being released from Superman status. Sidney Poitier no longer had to be Sidney Poitier. He always had a marvelous near-whinny of a laugh. He got to use it a lot more in those movies, such as “Uptown Saturday Night” (1973) and “A Piece of the Action” (1977), both of which he directed, as well as “Let’s Do It Again.”
Poitier was no longer the most important Black actor in Hollywood. That would be Richard Pryor, whom Poitier directed in “Stir Crazy” (1980). It’s hard to imagine a clearer demonstration of how popular culture had shifted than the contrast between those two. If Ali was an anti-race man, Pryor really, really was. Yet that shift couldn’t have happened without Poitier having changed the culture the way he had. One of the great, enduring American movie stars, he may well be the only one whose stardom helped change America.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.