Icons / March 2018

Sidney Poitier: The Defiant One

His films may feel a bit old fashioned now, but in this age of male introspection, Sidney Poitier’s uncomplicated heroism is a welcome reassurance.

Sidney Poitier on the set of Lilies of the Field, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

The most important American film of 2017, and the worthiest successor to Moonlight’s best picture Oscar, was Get Out, a psychological horror-satire about a white woman who brings her black boyfriend home to meet her parents. It is a masterpiece: immaculately paced, queasily perceptive to the hypocrisies of white elites, a rise-through-the-octaves howl against semi-camouflaged prejudice.

The plot could also be read as a Trump-era riff on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a landmark film released half a century before it with a similarly symbolic representation of the generation above. If Get Out cleverly cast actors with progressive associations (indie darling Catherine Keener and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford), Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner chose holy cows Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as emblems of a Hollywood establishment charmed by the courtesy, intelligence and restraint of the leading black actor of the time. That actor, of course, was Sidney Poitier.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave Poitier his first notable screen role, as a tolerant doctor who tends to a racist thug in No Way Out (1950), a film that climaxes with the line, “Don’t cry, white boy. You’re gonna live.” In Blackboard Jungle (1955), the best of Poitier’s early films, he played a rebellious pupil who defends the liberal teacher in a knife-fight against a violent pupil, an unusually gritty scene and an omen of his own teacher role to come.

A figure of charismatic reassurance, Poitier pioneered the on-screen interracial friendship. In Edge of the City (1957), he befriends John Cassavetes’s drifter. He saves the life of Tony Curtis, the racist prisoner to whom he is chained, in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, a role for which he won a BAFTA and a Berlin Silver Bear. In his most stylish film, the nouvelle vague-infused, Duke Ellington-scored Paris Blues (1961), Poitier double-dates with Paul Newman and plays jazz with Louis Armstrong.

Poitier lamented that, when he started out, the roles for black actors were “always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling butlers, really misfits. This was the background when I came along 20 years ago and I chose not to be a party to the stereotyping… I have four children… They go to the movies all the time, but they rarely see themselves reflected there.”

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.