Let's Hear It for Sidney; Film Star First, Black Man Second ... How Sidney Poitier Earned Hollywood's Gratitude
Walker, Alexander, The Evening Standard (London, England)
Byline: ALEXANDER WALKER
THERE are usually two reasons for awarding an honorary Oscar to a film star. Both are embarrassing. One, because he or she has long been overlooked.
Two, because he or she hasn't long to live. But Sidney Poitier, who collected his honorary Oscar from the Academy on Sunday night, is a special case again.
The Rev Al Sharpton, a black activist with a lot of following, had warned Hollywood it could not continue ignoring the achievements of his black brothers and sisters. Point taken. An Oscar for "Life Achievement", to go with the one Poitier won as long ago as 1963 for Lilies of the Field, seemed a good idea. And then when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry both won Oscars on the night last weekend, the colour black was top of the charts. "I sense change," said one black commentator.
Well, maybe. Hollywood has always been a white man's cinema, notwithstanding the social consciousness and racial sympathies of numerous anti-prejudice movies. These always reflected a white liberal view: the idea that the races can live harmoniously together, given mutual understanding and respect, etc etc. Even when the idea (as distinct from the act) of intermarriage finally made it into a script, it was in films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), itself an integration fantasy in which the young black becomes an eligible husband for the white girl only after he has been idealised into her class and practically out of his race.
He was, of course, played in that film by Sidney Poitier. One says "of course" reluctantly, for therein lies the gross taunt that has pursued this immensely talented actor for much of his life.
Almost without exception, Poitier's roles have been ones reassuring to whites and gratifying to blacks. The dark notes of any character he plays are lightened by his presence; unlike the later generation of black stars - Snipes, Washington, Glover, Murphy - in which their "blackness" is intentionally darkened. Poitier belongs in that awkward inbetween era just before racial advance picked up speed, numbers and power. Handsome, boyish, sexually attractive, but not aggressive: young Sidney did not invite the jealous resentment of white filmgoers or feed old fears about over-endowment.
His early films emphasised the uncomfortable facts of racial interdependence as a necessity, not an option. The Defiant Ones, in 1958, chronicled the manhunt of two manacled fugitives, Poitier and Tony Curtis, who loathe each other at first, but learn to ignore the fact their skins are different colours when saving their skin is what it's all about. "I didn't pull you out," says Poitier, after saving Curtis from drowning, "I stopped you pulling me in." That assuaged black suspicions they were being nobbled. Poitier eventually holds his dying buddy in his arms and pumps out defiance in the ballad Long Gone. …