During his 1964 acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Actor, Sidney Poitier, slightly winded from his trek to the stage, breathily asserted, “Because it is a long journey to this moment, I am naturally indebted to countless numbers of people.” Poitier’s labored emphasis on the “long journey to this moment” underscored both the stamina of his onscreen appeal and his protracted route to acclaim that began with his 1950 film debut in No Way Out. It also gestured toward the adverse conditions that characterized his unprecedented trajectory in Hollywood.
Poitier, the pioneering Black actor and activist who died Thursday at age 94, had a complicated career. From his successful buddy pictures (The Defiant Ones, Duel at Diablo) to his spate of critical hits (To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Poitier played characters who expanded the range and repertoire of Black masculinity. His talent, charisma, good looks, and unquestionable success made him a star unlike any Black actor before him, many of whom were caricatured or overlooked during Hollywood’s studio era. Yet even with his superstardom, Poitier was constrained by the industry’s conservative ambitions and disinterest in Black complexity. With his sexuality neutered and his dignity firmly in place, Poitier embodied a model minority in films, a noble ebony saint who represented palatable Blackness and interracial harmony during a fraught time of racial struggle. His nonthreatening characters, who challenged systems by working within them, were thoroughly embraced by white audiences.
Black audiences, for their part, were not uniformly convinced. Roles such as Poitier’s well-mannered Black doctor—who sought approval from his white fiancée’s family—in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner drew harsh criticism from some viewers who craved not only positive Black representation but also resonant depictions of Black life and struggles. Reprisals of benign Black characters made Poitier a lightning rod for criticism and resentment, including being called a “showcase nigger” in The New York Times by the playwright Clifford Mason. But it was James Baldwin’s 1968 Look magazine profile of Poitier that truly captured the actor’s exceptionalism and isolation in the industry.
While critical of many of Poitier’s films, Baldwin exhibited an extraordinary appreciation of the actor’s eminence and talent. In his rebuke of Blackboard Jungle, for instance, Baldwin wrote that though he loathed the film, he thought that “Sidney was beautiful, vivid, and truthful in it. He somehow escaped the film’s framework, so much so that until today, his is the only performance I remember.” Baldwin understood that Poitier’s profound gift as an actor was to give more than what was on the page.
Baldwin used the fact of Poitier’s singular Black superstardom to indict a Hollywood system predicated on the disavowal of Blackness, writing:
The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life … And the black face, truthfully reflected, is not only no part of this dream, it is antithetical to it. And this puts the black performer in a rather grim bind. He knows, on the one hand, that if the reality of a black man’s life were on that screen, it would destroy the fantasy totally. And on the other hand, he really has no right not to appear, not only because he must work, but for all those people who need to see him. By the use of his own person, he must smuggle in a reality that he knows is not in the script.