“Why does white America love Sidney Poitier so much?” Asked New York Times journalist Clifford Mason in an opinion piece published in 1967. Mason, of course, provided the answer.
“There are two Sidney Poitiers. One is a man who works to improve the image of blacks in general and, in particular, to correct the injustices committed against black women. The other is the black movie star that all white America loves, ”wrote the black journalist, before unleashing a deep criticism of the actor. In the text there was an echo of the feeling of a layer of the black community that was more revolutionary than ever and wanted to shake society.
For them, Poitier was just that, the black man who formed to please the whites, who accepted the restrictions imposed and for this – although his entire career shows the opposite – was rewarded with prizes, one of which was highlighted, the Oscar Best Actor in 1964, the first award for a black actor. Even so, Mason’s criticism would change his life.
A life that ended on Thursday, January 6th, at the age of 94. The iconic Bahamian-born actor struggled but managed to build an enviable film career even in a time of deep racial differences. A subject that was never far from the stories and narratives that it brought to the screen.
Even aside from romantic roles and inclusion in characters that were considered acceptable for a black actor at the time, he was characterized by his ability to open doors to other Afro-born colleagues.
He was also an example of longevity, having had a strict and healthy diet for two decades. In such a curious way that it was the target of the press.
“He vowed to stop eating alcohol, red meat, milk, and sugar – and called occasional ice cream servings ‘relapsed,’” wrote the New York Times in 2000 about his diet, “which has become legendary in Beverly Hills “. And they gave an example of a breakfast: an omelette with just egg whites, a plate of broccoli, muesli with blueberries and, and I didn’t drink milk, just water. “He’s been a healthy eating and exercise enthusiast for at least 40 years,” they note.
However, it was the role of the man at a crossroads between blacks and whites that set him apart – off-screen, of course. This line had a very real representation on the ground: they called it the Mason-Dixon Line, the boundary line that separated the north from the south, the result of the bloody civil war provoked by the end of slavery.
Under this line, the worst racial customs of the terrible 1950s and 1960s were maintained, when racial segregation was not only generally accepted but promoted. The films with Poitier as the protagonist always failed in the southern states. It’s not that Poitier was too worried about it.
He himself insisted on only one condition imposing on the films in which he was involved: he refused to record any scene below this limit.
So recalls Norman Jewison, Canadian director who shot “In the Heat of the Night” in 1966, which was supposed to be a short film, but became a huge hit with Poitier in the role of the detective investigating a murder in a southern South City ( and racist). It would eventually win five Oscars.
Poitier was happy to learn of the possibility of being the protagonist, but there was a problem. Jewison wanted to shoot in a location that was as realistic as possible, and to do that they had to cross that line towards Mississippi. Poitier had sworn not to. “I said it so emphatically that I immediately realized that it was very important to him,” Jewison told The Hollywood Reporter.
Poitier made it clear: “I had bad experiences with Harry Belafonte in Georgia. Our car was followed, we were threatened, I don’t want to go back.” The director promised to find a solution. It was impossible.
Jewison tried everything and made one final suggestion: he would only need Poitier on location to shoot two scenes that would only last a few days. “I remember begging Sidney and he just said, ‘I see, I understand.’ He understood that we had no alternative. “
Eventually, they would travel to Dyersburg, Tennessee, with a team of “great and loyal men” who would help avoid problems and potential protests. Even so, they had to obey all racist laws.
“We were forced to go to the Holiday Inn because it was the only place that accepted African American people. Dyersburg’s flagship hotel was a whites-only hotel in the south, ”says Jewison. “Don’t forget that we recorded in 1966, things were tense. Martin Luther King Jr. had just marched into Selma. The country was in the midst of a racial revolution. “
The recording went smoothly, but Poitier had had some bad experiences in the south. Two years earlier, Poitier had been harassed and threatened by members of the Klu Klux Klan while visiting Mississippi.
The following years were tough for Poitier, who fought in the shadows for more opportunities for black actors in his productions. He even took part in civil rights marches, despite being a reluctant activist and not engaging in heated and violent demonstrations. His peaceful character earned him a chorus of criticism and accusations: after all, he was the black “all whites like”.
He stood firm in his own struggle. I dreamed of breaking another barrier and being the protagonist of a romantic movie. I got it with “A Warm December” after realizing that the usual roles tire audiences and don’t bring the expected returns. But this film was also a box-office hit.
“[No início dos anos 70] I went through a time when I was a persona non grata among some militant elements, especially in New York, ”he wrote in 1998 in the book“ Playing to the Camera ”. “It started after my most successful films. No black actor had my level of success and the black actor community began to show resentment. “
“It was the perfect destination, but there was nothing I could do. I could end my career, but what would I get out of it? It certainly wouldn’t guarantee that they would be hired, ”he wrote. “Tell them about the countless times I’ve confronted people in the studios to promise they’d do something to hire more black actors? That would bring little consolation, not least because it never led to tangible results. “
It was then that Mason’s Chronicle landed in the New York Times and shocked the actor. “It was the most devastating and unfair journalism I have ever read (…) I told myself it was a sign of a new bad time in my life,” recalls Poitier. “In the article, Clifford Mason destroyed everything I had made (…) all of my films and then went on and threw my career further down – dedicated himself to retrospectively skinning me alive. He was a ‘father Tomás’, ‘a lackey’, ‘a black housewife’ – terms normally associated with blacks who, in his opinion, did not do what they could to deserve the applause of their fellow men. “
From loved to hated, sometimes simultaneously, Mason’s criticism led Poitier to withdraw and gradually step out of the lead roles. He fled to his Bahamas and eventually took on supporting roles before becoming an equally successful filmmaker despite having few jobs.
Over the years the political climate calmed down, and Poitier was eventually recognized by almost everyone. In 2002, Denzel Washington took the stage to replicate the historic 1964 Oscar win for best actor and pay tribute to the man who made everything possible. “I’ve been chasing you for forty years, Sidney… I’ll always be after you, Sidney. I will always follow in your footsteps. “