From the time Sidney Poitier first stepped in front of the camera in 1950, he drastically altered the racial paradigm of Hollywood films. Poitier came to represent the changes implemented by the Civil Rights movement. As an actor, Poitier’s role in the Civil Rights movement was to “desegregate the entire cultural statement of America” (Goudsouzian). Poitier was one of the first black actors to pull away from the stereotypical roles of black actors at the time, roles of servants, comedians, and singers. He also gave dignity and humanity to all of his characters, thereby shifting the potentials of black actors in Hollywood while also providing white audiences with a more accurate image of African Americans. Sidney Poitier is an example of the legitimacy the Civil Rights movement gave African American actors in Hollywood.
|Poitier’s mother, Evelyn|
|Poitier’s father, Reginald|
Poitier’s background gives insight into the uniqueness of the actor who was able to change the face of black performance in Hollywood. Poitier was born prematurely in 1927 Miami to a tomato farmer from Cat Island in the Bahamas. Expecting his three-pound son to die, his father bought a miniature casket to bury him in. Poitier grew up in poverty on Cat Island. At the age of 15 he moved to Miami to live with an older brother, and at 17 he moved to New York. After a few years in the army during WWII, he took a series of menial dishwashing jobs before deciding to go into theatre. Poitier’s Hollywood film debut, NO WAY OUT (1950), saw him in the role of a young doctor, already breaking racial stereotypes.
Many scholars accredit Poitier’s sense of dignity to his upbringing in a primarily black environment on Cat Island – “Colonialism aside, growing up in a black majority country meant that most of the doctors, nurses, lawyers, and policemen he encountered were black” (Goudsouzian). Poitier once said of himself and fellow actor and friend Harry Belafonte:
“I firmly believe that we both had the opportunity to arrive at the formation of a sense of ourselves without having it f—— with by racism as it existed in the United States.” (Gates)
“I have always had great pride. My parents taught me I was as good as anyone. In the Caribbean, a young Negro is never robbed of his pride.” (Marill)
“Now the [color] line was all over the place like barbed wire, and I kept running into it and lacerating myself.” (Gates)
|In GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1968)
with veteran actors Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
“Despite their great singing and dancing and cooing, and definitely despite their prettiness, they did not strike me as being as real in what they were doing as, say, the Negroes I had passed that evening on the street. Although I had enjoyed what I had seen, I was left a little confused. In fact, that’s what most of them were, entertainers. In too many instances, it was the negation of the Negro’s very humanity in terms of the authentic portrayal of his personality as an entire integrity rather than a factionary dysfunction. I had begun to grow fearful that perhaps Negroes really did lack the capacity for dramatic portrayal.” (Hernton, 2003)
|Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar.
She won for her performance as “Mammy” in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
The few African American actors who were able to achieve any level of notoriety often did so by actually perpetuating white audiences’ perceptions of African Americans. As film historian Charlene Regester points out, during the 1930s, “black actresses began to gain prominence as the screen companion to (the shadow of) these white actresses; among them were Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, and Fredi Washington.” Regester also observes how the black press reacted to such actresses, “praising them for the performance and castigating them for the images their characters projected.”
In the case of Hattie McDaniel, perhaps the most popular and well-known actress of this group, her continuous portrayal of the Mammy character pushed the performer and the character in two separate directions. On the one hand, McDaniel was gaining respect as an actor by “her transformation of the subservient (subordinate, dehumanized, and devalued) into the dominant (defiant and directing)” in her portrayals of a limiting role. On the other hand, her on-screen roles were seen as being “inextricably linked with persecution, victimization, marginalization, and exploitation.”
|From IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)|
|with Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston
in Washington, DC
“Poitier’s rhetoric balanced between progressive politics and public appeal. He recognized his position as a spokesman and fundraiser, which suited his philosophical, nonconfrontational nature. He thus typically refrained from overt activism.” (Goudsouzian)
“what I want is the kind of role that makes me feel worth-while. I will work anywhere, movies, theatre, and TV, provided the material has texture, quality – something good to say about life” (Rollins).