At a key moment in In the Heat of the Night, the influential 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the northern US assigned to investigate a seemingly racially-motivated murder in the Deep South, his character is confronted by a gum-chewing, redneck police chief with whom he must work. “Virgil, that’s a funny name for a n***er boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?” The black detective trembles; his rage barely contained. He juts out his jaw, his voice a rising rumble of defiance: “They call me Mr Tibbs!”
Watching that scene we, the excited children of black Jamaican migrants in Luton, let out a collective “Yes!”. Sidney Poitier was one cool dude on and off screen – and we loved, absolutely loved Virgil Tibbs, the actor who played him and all he stood for.
Sidney, a new documentary about Poitier, who died on 6 January this year aged 94, directed by Reginald Hudlin and produced by Oprah Winfrey, invites audiences to punch the air at Poitier’s many triumphs and to marvel at the majesty of the man who was the first black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Poitier was born in 1927, but not expected to live. He was three months premature, and was born while his Bahamian parents were on a business trip to Miami. His father prepared a shoe box to serve as his coffin. Poitier’s early years were spent in the Bahamas, on the impoverished Cat Island, just 50 miles long and four miles wide, with few if any cars and no running water. The family’s home did not even have a mirror. Poitier was the youngest child of tomato farmers whose business was destroyed when the US imposed restrictions on the importation and sale of such produce.
Though far from hagiography, Sidney is laudatory, and given to a kind of soft-focus sentimentality, especially when a lachrymose Winfrey is interviewed. The tone is set by the inclusion of extracts of film archive, and Poitier’s calm, dignified voice. He sounds as intrigued as we are by this story of a poor country boy destined for greatness.
Without a market for their tomatoes, and dim prospects for their livelihood, the family went in search of a means of bettering themselves, like migrants the world over. They travelled first to Nassau, the Bahamian capital, where Poitier encountered his first white person. The white population was a tiny minority there, and the documentary emphasises this point by way of explaining Poitier’s later lack of racial anxiety. Early on he demonstrated what psychologists call an “internal locus of control” – an enabling sense of one’s own agency – and so subsequently he was not stymied by the kind of stultifying, self-conscious inferiority that was all too prevalent in racist America, as he discovered when he was sent as a teenager, battle-hardened by poverty, to try his luck in Miami.
In the decades before Poitier’s ascendancy the battle for the souls of black folk, especially in America, was waged between two competing organisations: Marcus Garvey’s working-class mass movement the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and WEB Du Bois’s interracial group the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose ranks numbered an imagined elite of African Americans, the so-called “talented tenth”. Poitier was a driven young man who straddled both camps, embracing ideas of improvement and advancement. As an aspiring actor in Harlem in New York City, earning a living as a dishwasher, he set himself on a course of refinement: out went his Caribbean accent and in came the transatlantic sophistication perfected by earlier Hollywood masters of self-invention such as Cary Grant.
He was lucky, and steadily built his reputation through a series of transformative and ennobling roles in which, for many black people, the man and actor were indistinguishable.
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After success on stage in the late 1940s through his work with the American Negro Theatre, Poitier was offered his first major film role. In No Way Out (1950) he plays an admirable doctor with racist white patients won over by his sanguine nature, skill and integrity. His rejection of humiliation electrified black audiences. Similarly, in a famous scene in In the Heat of the Night, an elderly, bigoted and wealthy white man, offended by the impertinence of Virgil Tibbs, slaps him in the face – and Tibbs slaps him back without a beat. Poitier insisted the reaction be written into the script.
When Poitier navigated the expectations of black and liberal white folk, he mostly enthralled but occasionally angered. For some African American detractors, including James Baldwin, there was a belittling misstep in 1958’s The Defiant Ones. Poitier plays Noah Cullen, a convict who escapes from a chain gang. He’s yoked to another convict, John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis), who snarls with resentment underpinned by racial hatred. As the film progresses they move from loathing to a kind of love. At the film’s climax Cullen, untethered from Jackson, scrambles aboard a moving train. He stretches out his arm for Jackson, who runs alongside but cannot get a footing. When he realises Jackson won’t make it, Cullen leaps from the train, knowing he will be recaptured.
Baldwin believed Poitier had surrendered to the trope of the self-sacrificing black man. The Defiant Ones was, Baldwin wrote, “offered as a metaphor for the ordeal of black-white relations in America, an ordeal, the film is saying, that has brought us closer together than we know”. Baldwin felt it reeked “of the most disastrous sentimentality”.
Notwithstanding the compromises Poitier had to make to succeed in Hollywood, he was a race warrior. He rejected roles that he considered demeaning; though that had been the price of entry for a generation of entertainers who came before him, Poitier, the documentary suggests, never bowed his head.
He was also, like his great friend and sometimes rival, Harry Belafonte, keen to use his growing fame to promote civil rights despite considerable personal risk, particularly at the March on Washington in 1963. Sidney illuminates Poitier’s courage in later joining Belafonte on a dangerous journey to the seething South in a show of solidarity with civil rights activists and, importantly, to hand over funds to them. The law enforcers whom the actors had expected failed to show up and the Ku Klux Klan, with murderous intent, followed their car and tried to run them off the road.
Dangerous times, but the 1960s marked the most extraordinary decade in Poitier’s career. He won his Oscar for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, in which he played a travelling handyman working with a group of German-speaking nuns who believe he has been sent by God to build them a chapel. He was admired for his roles in Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun and A Patch of Blue. Poitier’s films were beacons of defiance and hope in the midst of the decade’s freedom marches, burning cities, state-sponsored violence and the assassinations of three black icons of civil rights: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King.
Poitier starred in three films in 1967 – To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – that potentially signalled progress. I found the former, an adaptation of the Guyanese novelist ER Braithwaite’s memoir, cloyingly saccharine. But In the Heat of the Night (despite the eventual bromance between Tibbs and the formerly racist cop played by Rod Steiger, which echoed The Defiant Ones) was indisputably inspiring. It articulated an unspoken desire for retribution and revenge, “sticking it to the white man”.
In the decade that followed, with the rise of blaxploitation films, black characters weren’t just slapping recalcitrant white bigots, they were shooting them, and in the late Sixties Poitier was increasingly criticised by black activists as an unthreatening “magical Negro” figure, underscored in a 1967 New York Times feature: “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” The article excoriated Poitier, likening his treatment by film directors to the plight of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom at the hands of his slave-owning tormentor, Simon Legree, and comparing his work to the embarrassing buffoonery of the comedian Stepin Fetchit: “In all of these films he… is given a clean suit and a complete purity of motivation so that, like a mistreated puppy, he has all the sympathy on his side and all those mean whites are just so many Simon Legrees.” Such criticisms were unfair, the contributors to Sidney – Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman and especially Winfrey – contend. They take the view that Poitier should be cut some slack, allowing for the historical specificity of what was permissible for even a famous black actor.
Throughout his Hollywood acting career Poitier was burdened by the expectations of black people, from the US to the Bahamas to Luton and beyond. If he made a pact with Hollywood, it was far from Mephistophelean. He was criticised – at times understandably so but oftentimes not. As Sidney shows, he had a superabundance of empathy, dignity and grace even when under fire. And he had a smile – my God, that open, generous, life-affirming smile, that said “who shall be happy if not everyone?” – that lit up the silver screen, and every room he walked into.
“Sidney” is streaming now on Apple TV+
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