RIP Sidney Poitier…
Sad news from the world of entertainment… as news outlets are reporting today:
“The trailblazing Actor who made history in 1964 when he became the first Black performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his leading role in Lilies of the Field, has died, according to the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was 94.”
Poitier was a groundbreaking Actor who challenges stereotypes about race in America…he was one of the most popular Actors of his generation, including the smash hit “To Sir, With Love”, when he played a schoolteacher dealing with rowdy students in a London high school.
You can find extensive biographies about his body of work, but I wanted to focus on one year in particular – when he starred in two films that were both nominated for Best Picture of the year!
“In The Heat Of The Night” was a powerful indictment of racism in the south, culminating in a cinematic “slap” heard around the world.
This Is A “Picture From A Revolution!”
This scene, when Sidney Poitier slaps a white man who had just slapped him across the face – was incendiary for its time, and it’s one one of the powerful films of 1967, a year of “revolution” in Hollywood.
The older southern gentleman immediately looks at Sheriff Rod Steiger, who does nothing…the older man then says in his day he would have had Poitier shot on the spot…this scene is recounted in this terrific book:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris
This is a terrific story about Hollywood, Oscars, the end of one era in film, and the launch of a new way of making movies that changed Hollywood forever.
It’s the epic story behind the making of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “The Graduate”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “Doctor Doolittle”, and “Bonnie and Clyde” – and through them, the larger story of the cultural revolution that transformed Hollywood, and America, forever!
In the mid-1960s, Hollywood released westerns, war movies and blockbuster musicals like “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music”. More controversial topics were avoided.
Even though Sidney Poitier has just made history by becoming the first black Best Actor winner, he was feeling completely cut off from opportunities – other than the same “noble black man” role.
That all changed in 1967 – a year of seismic change in film, as one had the audacity to ask this question:
“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”
This provocative film tackled a virtually taboo subject at the time: inter-racial marriage – but Producer Director Stanley Kramer used Poitier as the perfect Actor to take it on:
This was explosive material for the movies, hard to imagine today. The idea of an inter-racial marriage was shocking to much of the country…however, the casting of the film made a huge impact on getting the message of “acceptance ” out, as the parents were portrayed by Hollywood legends Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy:
The film is honest and candid for its time – in fact, his parents are just as shocked about the couple as her parents are:
The film feels a bit dated now, and certainly they walked gingerly around some aspects of the topic, but this was a “mainstream” Hollywood film tackling the subject of interracial love – very controversial for its time.
And it was a “double bill” year for Poitier, as he also starred in the brilliant film about racism in the south called “In The Heat Of The Night!”
“They Call Me MR. Tibbs!”
Poitier starred as Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia cop who finds racism everywhere in a redneck south that refuses to think modern, and as the poster warned “this was adult” stuff! Poitier is confronted by ingrained racism at every turn, not helped by the racist Police Chief played by Rod Steiger – check out the trailer:
Poitier is stalked by white racists as he tries to solve the murder of a Philadelphia businessman in this sleepy southern town. He uncovers racism and so much more…
The film is brilliantly acted and directed, and both Poitier and Steiger were nominated for Best Actor, with Steiger winning that year – the film also won the Best Picture Oscar as well as Best Director:
A “Slap” Heard Around The World!
The film’s most powerful scene takes place when Poitier and Steiger visit a southern mansion owned by wealthy local Eric Endicott. The conversation begins with a discussion of flowers, but quickly becomes strained as Endicott is questioned about the murder by Detective Tibbs.
The wealthy Southerner is not used to being talked back to by a black man. Tibbs speaks calmly, politely until Endicott lunges forward and slaps him across his face for his insolence.
Tibbs immediately laps him back, harder. Endicott, astonished, nearly falls over, then reveals the true nature of his racism.
“There was a time,’ he tells Tibbs, “when I could have had you shot.”
Tibbs, Gillespie and an astonished black servant bearing glasses of lemonade depart the room, leaving Endicott to weep openly. It is a shockingly powerful scene in a film that is filled with them – one of the greatest Best Picture winners ever, but this year was filled with masterpieces that dealt with taboo subjects.
It was one of four incredible films in 1967 that sparked a “revolution” – see why here:
One of those films was the brilliant “Bonnie & Clyde”, which also broke barriers for onscreen violence in film…it was Gene Wilder’s film debut:
Legendary Actor Gene Wilder died a few years ago as well, but will be remembered for so many great films – here is a look at his debut role:
Poitier made his mark in mainstream film, but there were others also creating powerful films that challenged the status quo:
Artist Melvin Van Peebles took on the establishment in a powerful film that still resonates today – click here to see why:
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RIP to the brilliant Sidney Poitier, whose films will live on forever…