If Sidney Poitier had an acting trademark, it was the cool boil. In the movies, when injustice drove him to the brink, he became a pot of outrage on the verge of bubbling over. His eyes would blaze. His mahogany skin would tighten. His words would gush out in spasms of angry eloquence, carefully measured by grim, simmering pauses.
But the powder keg never exploded. It could not explode. For over a decade, from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, Poitier was Hollywood’s lone icon of racial enlightenment; no other black actor consistently won leading roles in major motion pictures. His on-screen actions thus bore a unique political symbolism. The cool boil struck a delicate balance, revealing racial frustration, but tacitly assuring a predominantly white audience that blacks would eschew violence and preserve social order.
On 22 August 1967, life imitated art. During a televised press conference in Atlanta, reporters peppered Poitier with questions about urban riots and black radicals. Race riots had ravaged Newark and Detroit during a summer that had also seen race-related civil disorders in a spate of other cities. For five minutes, Poitier answered the questions. Then came the reined-in rage. “It seems to me that at this moment, this day, you could ask me about many positive things that are happening in this country,” he lectured. Instead, the reporters fixated on a narrow segment of the black population. The movie star admonished their tendency “to pay court to sensationalism, to pay court to negativism.”
Poitier further objected that the media had crowned him a spokesman for all black America. With controlled fury, he refused to be defined only by his skin color. “There are many aspects of my personality that you can explore very constructively,” he seethed. “But you sit here and ask me such one-dimensional questions about a very tiny area of our lives. You ask me questions that fall continually within the Negroness of my life.” He demanded recognition of his humanity: “I am artist, man, American, contemporary. I am an awful lot of things, so I wish you would pay me the respect due.” His soliloquy won applause from the abashed reporters, who then confined their questions to the actor’s career.1