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 in The Slender Thread, 1965

The most important American film of 2017, and the worthiest successor to Moonlight’s best picture Oscar, is 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 Whos Coming To Dinner, a landmark film released 50 years 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 Whos 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.

Since he was born two months premature, at only three pounds, in February 1927, Poitier was a stoical early starter. The youngest of eight children, he grew up between the Bahamas and Miami, where his farmer parents sold tomatoes. At 13, he was punched by a cyclist and always vowed to track him down. At 16, Poitier moved to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher and lied about his age to get into he army, but soon faked insanity to be discharged. Having taught himself to read, he won a place at the American Negro Theatre. Tone deaf, he focused on his elocution and modulated his Bahamian accent to a slow, crisp delivery based on newsreaders.

Published

January 2022

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