In 2003, when Barack Obama was still an underdog candidate for the U.S. Senate, his campaign manager Jim Cauley ran a focus group with well-to-do women from Chicago’s North Shore. If Obama had any chance to win, he needed these liberal White voters. His staff showed pictures of the candidates and asked the group for their impressions. What did they think when they saw Obama? “Sidney Poitier,” answered one woman.
The moment struck Cauley. Obama was the rare Black politician with genuine appeal across race lines. “This,” he thought, “was real.”
Poitier, who died Friday at age 94, had a legendary career and a deep impact. As the sole Black actor who consistently won leading roles in the 1950s and 1960s, he became an icon of racial integration. His characters always helped his White co-stars, and they rarely used violence or expressed sexuality. Poitier infused those roles with dignity and pride.
Winning over both White and Black audiences in the civil rights era was a political minefield, and Poitier tiptoed through it with grace. He lent a model of contained charisma for Black Americans in the spotlight, including a future president of the United States.
When Poitier first achieved stardom in the 1950s, with sizzling roles in “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Defiant Ones,” he had a cutting-edge image. His sharp, virtuous characters transcended the lazy, goofy stereotype of Stepin Fetchit, a comic Black actor who played shuffling sidekicks in the 1930s. In 1964, he won best actor at the Academy Awards for “Lilies of the Field,” playing a solitary handyman who builds a chapel for some nuns. He was generous and charming, devoid of any racial baggage. How could White audiences resist him? The Oscar represented a liberal moment of interracial goodwill.
In 1967, Poitier starred in the blockbuster hits “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night,” which arrived in the wake of racial unrest in cities such as Newark and Detroit. Still playing characters of intelligence and decency, Poitier seemed to implicitly reassure audiences that interracial harmony was possible, that Black people were good, that the nation’s racial sins still could be forgiven.
As the actor got more popular, the complaints grew louder, however. “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” asked a New York Times headline. Increasingly, film critics and Black intellectuals protested that he didn’t express a genuine Black humanity. His characters were so contained and polished and righteous that he had become a one-man stereotype.