(column Baltimore City Paper)
by Vincent Williams
February 6, 2008
United Artists did me a solid by releasing the 40th anniversary edition of In the Heat of the Night recently. I've been looking for an opening to rectify one of the great black cultural crimes of the 20th century: the way popular culture dismisses Sidney Poitier's contribution to film as important but, ultimately, only noteworthy for the historical moment that it represents. Taken out of this historical context, lots of people like to say that the actor was nonthreatening and, even worse, that he is mostly desexualized. Suffice it to say, I believe that Poitier has gotten a bad rap, and his work backs this up.
Poitier and his reputation are always lurking in the back of my mind, but Bob Johnson's infamous comments a couple of weeks ago brought it completely to the fore. Campaigning for Hillary Clinton, Johnson made some disparaging comments about Barack Obama that got major media attention. While everyone rightly honed in on the BET founder's implications about Obama's admitted past drug use, his dismissal of the Illinois senator as someone that wanted people to think he was harmless and nonthreatening, "like Sidney Poitier," didn't seem to jump out at people. All I know is that when a man who has done more to single-handedly disrupt, denigrate, and out and out destroy the Black Aesthetic than anyone else feels as though he can go in front of people and disrespect Poitier, well, it's pretty clear that we're all living in Crazytown.
This is especially true because, when the smoke clears, the root of any Poitier critique is that he speaks well and dresses well, and when there are white women around, he never really hooks up with them. For instance, some critics have dismissed Poitier's character in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but, honestly, in 1967, I'm not sure what people expected. Yes, the "loving couple" of Poitier's Dr. Prentice and Katharine Houghton's Joey only kiss at the conclusion of the film, a kiss the audience sees in a rearview mirror, but the narrative that leads up to that kiss was more transgressive and revolutionary than any of the "Superbuck" sex scenes that so-called blaxploitation films shoveled into our consciousness a few years afterward.
And then there are the other two culprits critics always bring up with their "Sidney Poitier is nonthreatening/desexualized" argument: A Patch of Blue and my favorite early Poitier film, To Sir, With Love. Certainly, in both films there are white women to whom the narrative doesn't allow Poitier to be romantically attached, but I would argue that the devil is in the details. In A Patch of Blue, while Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman's characters never consummate their relationship, it's not because the former is emasculated. In fact, it's just the opposite, Hartman, a young, naive blind girl, awkwardly throws herself at Poitier for half of the movie. It is only because Poitier doesn't want to have sex that the duo don't. Yes, it can be argued that the narrative goes out of its way to keep the two apart, but, at the same time, the film certainly posits Poitier as a sexual being. Likewise, in To Sir, With Love, no less than three white women take turns throwing themselves at Poitier's character (a character who is framed as a black person so poised and well put together that his job is to civilize a class full of white students--obviously, a role that didn't challenge any notions of race), and he basically places himself above it all. Again, you could argue that this is just another contrivance keeping Poitier from white women, but, clearly, he is sexualized; Poitier is not playing one of the asexual roles that actors like Morgan Freeman have made a career out of. If '60s-era Poitier drove Miss Daisy, she'd spend the whole film trying to get into his pants.
And then there's arguably Poitier's most famous role, Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. In director Norman Jewison's epic tale of an urban black detective butting heads with a rural white sheriff and the town he represents, Poitier absolutely seethes on the screen. Articulate, well-educated, and brilliant, Tibbs is one of the greatest creations in American film and perfectly embodies the post-civil rights movement definition of black manhood. In fact, when Tibbs is slapped by a member of the older white gentry and immediately slaps him back, the viewer can almost see the times changing right on screen. Sidney Poitier did nothing less than change the way in which people viewed black characters on screen, and, frankly, when we talk about him and his depictions of black manhood, I believe we should refer to him as Mr. Poitier.