Meet the 'Jackie Robinson of film'

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At birth, actor Sidney Poitier weighed less than three pounds and was not expected to live. His parents purchased a tiny casket and made a visit to a local soothsayer. But instead of death, she predicted two things: that he would lead a glorious life and that he would "walk with kings."

He fulfilled the second promise two years ago when he was appointed ambassador to Japan from his birthplace, the Bahamas. His life has been the realization of the first prophecy. Actress and documentary filmmaker Lee Grant has chronicled his career in the American Masters special, Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light (PBS, Wednesday, Feb. 2, check local listings).

The first black to receive both an Academy Award nomination and to win the Oscar, Poitier was a pioneer, often called "the Jackie Robinson of film." He was also a role model for black performers. "Sidney invented the African-American in film," says Quincy Jones, the prominent record producer and composer. "And then he perfected it. He just got more diversified and more courageous...."

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His US career began shortly before his 15th birthday when his father put him on a boat from Cat Island bound for Miami. He stayed in Florida long enough to learn about the heavy hand of Southern segregation laws. From there, with $3 in his pocket, he made his way to Times Square, where the bright lights of Broadway bit him with the acting bug. His presence quickly earned him a ticket to Hollywood.

Once there, it wasn't long before he began to redefine roles available to black performers. He credits enlightened members of the creative community he encountered in 1949. "Some were liberals, some were not...," Poitier recalls. "But they felt something about making a comment about their time as artists, and when they saw opportunities to do so, they did."

He ticks off such names as Darryl Zanuck, Stanley Kramer, Martin Ritt, and David Suskind. "They had certain convictions, and it reflected in their work. That was, I believe, the basis of my entry into the film world."

Poitier's list of credits is a virtual library of socially significant films, starting with "No Way Out (1950)," which was banned in the Bahamas. The citizen's committee that worked to lift the ban ultimately became the first political party in the islands and led directly to the overthrow of colonial rule in the late 1960s. "Cry, the Beloved Country" examined South African apartheid; "A Raisin in the Sun" was a searing presentation of black life in America.

"Lilies of the Field," about a black man who helps a group of white nuns, won him the 1963 Oscar; "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) won an Academy Award for best film; and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," in the same year, was nominated for best film. It was also the first onscreen image of a mixed-race relationship that Americans had seen and was the center of a firestorm of political controversy, coming the year before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

A sense of self-possession rooted in an experience outside the racially divided America was key to Poitier's ability to rise above American attitudes about race. "I felt the revelation was the fact that he was born in the Bahamas," Ms. Grant says. "He had been raised on an island where he was 90 percent of the population, so that when he came to America, he was fully formed."

The film's subject himself says that self-sufficiency and survival were key to the formation of his character. His childhood home had no electricity, no running water, no cars. "A child of seven had to make a contribution to move the family from morning to night every day," Poitier says. "Early, the sense of participation and responsibility seeped into me."

Poitier, who has had an interracial marriage with actress Joanna Shimkus for more than 30 years, doesn't dismiss the impact of racial discrimination in his career. But he was well-equipped to face it. "Pride and entitlement," Poitier says. "I brought them with me from Cat Island."

With over half a century in film, the actor who grew into a talented director says that movies are not the social tool they once were. If he were young today, he says he would choose something "more useful," and points to his ambassadorship. Even at its best, he demurs with a laugh, film can only highlight problems. "It can't solve them. We must do that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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