In honor of ‘Sidney’: A celebration of Sidney Poitier

“Introduce yourselves to her!”

I was having a breakfast interview in 1997 with Sidney Poitier at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when two rather sleazy Hollywood types interrupted our conversation proffering their hands to the legendary actor. Poitier stood up and shook their hands while these two men began to blither on about the first Black actor to win a competitive Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field” and was the top box office draw in 1968. Finally, Poitier stopped them, pointed to me and in his best Virgil Tibbs voice uttered that command. They quickly shook my hand, and the conversation was soon over.

I interviewed Poitier four times from 1991-98 when I was at the Los Angeles Times. They were more than just conversations about a certain project or event. We had two-hour plus chats revolving numerous subjects including education and racism. These encounters were life changing. In fact, after our first chat he sent me four letters — one a month — encouraging me to write a book. Alas, I never did.

The new documentary “Sidney” from director Reginald Hudlin and produced by Oprah Winfrey, which recently opened in limited release in theaters as well as simultaneously streaming on Apple TV +, brought memories of my time with Poitier flooding back. And for good reason. Poitier tells the story of his life and career in a filmed interview conducted when he was in his 70s. I felt yet again I was sitting across the table from him at the Beverly Wilshire or the Polo Lounge mesmerized with his stories.

I was 11 when I first saw Poitier on the big screen. I was going to see the 1966 Disney comedy “Lt. Robinson Crusoe” with Dick Van Dyke and “Lilies of the Field” was the second feature. Poitier had me at “Amen.” I had never seen anyone like him — tall, handsome with an incredible voice. And his acting was a far cry from most of the leading men of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I saw the trio of films he starred in in 1967-the Oscar-winning “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, With Love’ and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Of course, back then I had no idea that “more military Black citizenry was already labeling Poitier an Uncle Tom,” noted L.A Times’ Robert Abele in his review of “Sidney,” adding that though his “dignity, strength and charm of his roles uplifted Black moviegoers” they never threatened “whites.”

But the new documentary does point out that Poitier had a “personally endangering commitment to the civil rights movement. As Spike Lee puts it, “Poitier suffered the ‘slings and arrows’ Denzel Washington didn’t have to but thankfully he had the shoulders for it.”

Poitier noted in 1998 that he had turned down a lot of movies. “More than a few, I’ve got to tell you, he said. “Hollywood might or might have not been surprised, but it didn’t matter. I was here under my own terms, and I knew I had no power to influence except the power to say ‘No,” which was a power I exercised more than a few times. I didn’t come into this business for the fame and fortune and all of that. I had points to make to myself and to the world on behalf of myself and my family. I had to be here on my own terms.”

Seven years earlier he explained that the move away from inequality had been “painful and laborious and gradual. It isn’t so much as a movement away from, but a maturation of the nation’s value system. The national has grown a bit, it has gotten to be a better place, needless to add, with miles to go before we sleep. Times have changed vastly, and times have changed not at all.’’

Poitier made his film debut in Joseph Mankiewicz’ powerful 1950 race drama “No Way Out.” Some areas of the South, he recalled, didn’t show the movie. “But it was not closed out entirely. There were areas in the white community in the South were pictures (with Black actors) played, but they didn’t get uniformly wide distribution in those days. He didn’t feel, though, it was a groundbreaking movie. “If I was a white person looking at the African American experience, I might have thought it was a groundbreaking experience. But for me, the contents of the film, I was familiar with it in my own life.”

When he and Canada Lee went to the apartheid South Africa in 1950 to make “Cry, the Beloved Country” their occupation was listed as indentured servants not actors because it was the only way white director Zoltan Korda could associate with the two men. “The experience in South Africa in 1950 made an impact,” said Poitier who returned to a vastly different country to make the 1997 Showtime drama “Mandela and De Kerk.”

“I mean it was stunning in its brutality. The law required that we live 26 miles outside of the city of Johannesburg. They rented us a farm for that purpose. A car would come and get us in the morning and take us into Johannesburg to the studio. When we were done, we would get in the car and it would take us out of the city and back to the farm. I was a fairly alert kid when I was that age, so I knew to expect it would be different from where I came, but I really wasn’t ready for the extent of it.”

Poitier also had a rather successful film career directing himself in a trio of comedies — 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night,” 1975’s “Let’s Do It Again,” 1977’s “A Piece of the Action” — as well the 1980 blockbuster “Stir Crazy” with Gene  Wilder and Richard Pryor. Poitier had made his directorial debut in 1972 with with the Western “Buck and the Preacher’ starring his good friend Harry Belafonte. Poitier didn’t sign up to direct, but he ended up replacing the original director.

“I recognized the mercurial nature of the business,” explained Poitier. “Actors come and go, and I had had quite a remarkable career to that point. I thought, though, what happens if things slow down or I became out of season or whatever, and the career is over, what would you do? I like the business. I wanted to stay attached to it, so I set out and tried to learn about other aspects of the business other than acting. I paid attention to directors. I tucked all of those things I learned in the back of my head somewhere with an eye of maybe using it if I wanted to create some kind of longevity in this business in another area. When Harry Belafonte said he thought I should take over directing until Columbia sent someone, I said OK because I felt confident enough that I could at least hold the line for two or three or four days. As it happened, they eventually said ‘Never mind. Just go ahead and finish the picture.” That’s how I started directing.”

Though he was still working in TV movies in 1998 — his last film was 2001’s “The Last Brickmaker in America” — Poitier didn’t want to keep “busy” just doing movies. “I’d rather keep busy at living, because if I live to be 80, I only have 8 ½ years. If I live to be 90, I have 18 ½ years. Look at all the time there is on the other side of 90, there’s infinity. Infinity makes my possible 8 ½ years or my possible 18 ½ years the most valuable in the world.” Poitier died on January 6, 2022, just weeks from his 95th birthday (Feb. 20).

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