Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon

By Aram Goudsouzian | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
THREATS
(1955–1957)

Holding court in a dingy trade school bathroom, he presides over a band of incorrigibles. A cigarette dangles from his mouth. A white T-shirt, its sleeves rolled up to expose his sinewy muscles, offsets his smooth mahogany skin. He moves with an almost feline grace, and he exudes a selfassured calm. Only his eyes reveal an inner fire. He is Gregory Miller, Poitier’s character in Blackboard Jungle. In his first scene, he dominates the screen. Like “Rock Around the Clock,” the Bill Haley beat that rolls with the film’s credits, he embodies a generation of Americans less bound by behavioral, sexual, or racial convention. He is, in a word, cool.

When an authority figure confronts him, Miller rebels. The teacher Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) finds the boys smoking. Most scatter, but Miller just drops his cigarette slowly, nonchalantly, with an exaggerated parting of his fingertips. The teacher orders him to leave. “Can’t a guy wash his hands, Chief?” he says. Dadier threatens to take him to the principal. “You holdin’ all the cards, Chief,” he shrugs. When Dadier commands Miller to stop calling him “Chief,” the student smirks. “Sure, Chief. That’s what I been doin’ the whole time. Okay for us to drift now, Chief?”

Gregory Miller possesses none of the polished virtue of Dr. Luther Brooks, none of the earnest humility of Reverend Msimangu, none even of the integrationist credentials of Corporal Andrew Robertson or Inman Jackson. Nor does he recreate previous black stereotypes. He resembles the emergent hero of 1950s American youth culture: silky, sullen, sexually charged.

Marlon Brando created the icon in stage and screen versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. His rippled muscles, tight pants, animal rage, and emotional inarticulateness gave masculinity a sensuous, almost feminine edge. He recreated the image in On the Waterfront and The Wild One, and his popularity spawned a generation of kindred Method actors,

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