Remembering Sidney Poitier
Hollywood Actor (1927-2022)
The year was 1981. I was in ninth grade, living in Bengdubi, a never-heard-of-place. One Sunday, I ventured into a tiny music shop in a small, crowded, market of this never-heard-of-town. I asked the guy at the counter if he had cassettes of old English music (you see at that phase in my life, I was exploring western music). He nodded and handed me an audio cassette of ‘To Sir with Love.’ “You’ll love it”, he said. With some trepidation, I handed him some of my precious pocket money. When I reached home, I rushed to my room and inserted the cassette into the old tape recorder I borrowed from Dad, who incidentally had introduced me to musical greats like ‘Come September’ and ‘House with the Bamboo Door’ when I was growing up. That afternoon was the beginning of my lifelong love for what I still call ‘English music.’ Lulu’s rendition of ‘To Sir With Love’ touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to see the film but unfortunately, in those good old times there was no internet, no streaming of films and of course no Amazon prime or Netflix. I did manage to get hold of E.R Braithwaite’s book ‘To Sir with Love’ though, which I read from cover to cover several times. Then one day, a miracle happened or that was what my teen brain thought.
The local cinema hall used to show an English film every alternate Wednesday, but most films were World War II movie fare. One day, walking back from school, as I crossed the local cinema hall, I saw posters of ‘To Sir with Love.’ I whooped in delight. But wait, there was more. They were doing a Sidney Poitier special and apart from ‘To Sir With Love’, they would be screening ‘Lilies of the Field’ as well as ‘In the Heat of the Night.’ That was my first introduction to Sidney Poitier, the great Hollywood legend. As we all know, ‘To Sir with love’ is the story of an out-of-work engineer who manages a way to connect with the wayward teens in a rough neighbourhood in London. Sidney Poitier’s nuanced acting really impressed me as did the way in which he handles the problem of racial and colour bias prevalent in society then. For me the surprise movie was ‘Liles in the Field.’ I had, of course, read in an old magazine that this black-and-white film had won Poitier the Oscar for best acting. The storyline is simple. It was about a traveling African-American handyman Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) who stops by a farm in rural Arizona, where he is welcomed by a group of Roman Catholic nuns who have emigrated from Germany. Realizing that the farm needs a lot of work, Homer takes on a number of repair projects for the women, who are led by the headstrong Mother Maria (Lilia Skala). Impressed by Homer's kindness and strong work ethic, the nuns come to believe that he has been sent by God to help build them a chapel. Apart from being funny, touching and uplifting, this was a film that was instrumental in giving the first Oscar to an African American actor.
All his life, he fought racial bias in his own way, sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively.In one of his reminiscences, Poitier remarks that as he was brought up in Cat Island (Bahamas), he was blissfully ignorant of racial discrimination but when he came to Florida, he was stunned by it. 'It was all over the place like barbed wire,' he says. 'And I kept running into it and lacerating myself.' Throughout his career, a heavy weight of racial significance bore down on Mr. Poitier and the characters he played. 'I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,' he once wrote. His roles are mostly of characters who respond to racial slurs with reason and forgiveness, not with aggression. This reassured the white audiences. In an interview, talking about his roles in films, Mr Poitier said, 'It’s a choice, a clear choice. If the fabric of the society were different, I would scream to high heaven to play villains and to deal with different images of Negro life that would be more dimensional. But I’ll be damned if I do that at this stage of the game.' However, as the civil rights movement took a somewhat more militant stance, his roles also underwent a change. As Detective Virgil Tibbs of ‘In the Heat of the Night', the character of Poitier is not the good man who turns his other cheek when slapped but the man who gives back as good as he gets.
But even if we do away with the racial overtones and the manner in which Sidney Poitier resolutely fought prejudices and biases, the story of his life is indeed very inspiring. He was a premature baby and no one except his mother believed he would survive. In an interview, he talks about the ‘shoebox’ that his father purchased, in readiness for the burial of this frail, premature child. But despite great odds he survived. In an interview, he also talks about how becoming an actor was never on his horizon. He was a dishwasher and felt no shame at being one. But once when looking for a job in the newspaper columns, he realised there was no dishwashing job available but there was a job of an actor on hire. He went to audition for the part, was humiliated and shown the door as he was unable to read what he calls 'three-syllable-words’ and had a strong West Indian accent when he spoke. But this humiliation made him feel small and he decided he would improve his reading and learn the art of acting which he did, in return for working as a janitor at an acting school. His lucky break came when another actor at the theatre, Harry Belafonte, did not show up for a rehearsal attended by a Broadway producer. Mr. Poitier took the stage instead and was given a part in an all-Black production of ‘Lysistrata’ in 1946. After that there was no looking back for him as he went from strength to strength as an actor.
A couple of years back, I also happened to read ‘The Measure of a Man: A spiritual autobiography’ by Sidney Poitier, which talks not so much about his journey in Hollywood but about life. In the Introduction to the book, he says, 'I decided I wanted to write about life. Just Life itself. What I have learnt by living seventy years of it.' The book was more of an exploration and an exercise in self-questioning in which Poitier evaluates his life and stands in judgment on how well he has 'measured up to the values I myself have set.' In this spiritual autobiography, Sidney Poitier comes across as a very sensitive human being with his heart in the right place. We will all miss him and the values he swore by. His films will always be an indispensable part of a precious collection of good films to watch on a rainy day.