In This Article Sidney Poitier

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Poitier’s Writings
  • Early Profiles and Interviews
  • Contemporary Profiles and Interviews
  • Primary Documents
  • Early Criticisms of Poitier’s Star Image
  • James Baldwin
  • Harry Belafonte and Celebrity Politics
  • Films in the 1960s
  • Directing and Films in the 1970s
  • Thematic Readings
  • Evidence of Cinematic Influence
  • Fictions Inspired by Poitier’s Star Image

Cinema and Media Studies Sidney Poitier
by
Arthur Knight
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0101

Introduction

Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) was the first African American to be, inarguably, a movie star and, beyond that, an “institution” of Hollywood film and American culture. Poitier’s stature is such that in his autobiography Barack Obama recalls his mother holding Poitier up as a model (alongside Martin Luther King Jr.); that in 2008 the New York Times’s film critics felt Poitier’s acting helped Americans prepare to elect a black president; and that Quentin Tarantino sought his advice before making Django Unchained (2012), his controversial, violent action film about an ex-slave turned bounty hunter. Poitier was the first African American to win a major Academy Award (Best Actor, 1963; awarded 1964) and the first African American box-office top earner (1967–1968). His many other honors include an honorary Academy Award (2002) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2009). That Poitier would achieve such renown was improbable. Poitier’s first Hollywood role was in a social problem film, No Way Out (1950), which featured a brutal interracial melee and a jaundiced view of American race and class relations. But Poitier’s character—a young, aspiring, and dignified doctor—served to provide a glimmer of hope. Poitier’s portrayal made it clear that though his character was angry and had suffered from white prejudice, he would rise above past injustices and work toward a better future. With many variations, this is a character type Poitier repeated over the next two decades in films such as The Defiant Ones (1958), Lilies of the Field (1963), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). These roles proved influential and led to great success but also to criticism of Poitier as an overly safe and de-sexualized “ebony saint.” In the 1970s Poitier increasingly turned to directing and producing. Never lauded for his style, he nonetheless made some influential and successful movies, including the black western Buck and the Preacher (1972), a trio of comedies that spoofed “blaxploitation” films, and Stir Crazy (1980), a breakthrough film for Richard Pryor and the first movie directed by an African American to earn more than 100 million dollars. After the 1980s, Poitier continued to act, often in character roles or in roles portraying civil rights icons—for example, Nelson Mandela. Since 2000 Poitier has turned his attention to penning popular, introspective autobiographies.

General Overviews

Thomson 2010, a much-lauded reference work, provides a helpful, short general overview of Poitier’s career, but in film history and criticism, Poitier’s work needs to be seen in several broader contexts. Poitier has been examined primarily in histories and analyses of African Americans in American film, and these make up the bulk of the works noted in this section. Bogle 2001, Cripps 1993, and Guerrero 1993 provide pioneering examples of this sort of analysis, shaped by writers’ experiences of the “blaxploitation” wave of the late 1960s and 1970s and the rise of African American filmmakers such as Spike Lee and John Singleton and the explosive stardom of Bill Cosby (on television) and Eddie Murphy in the 1980s and 1990s. George 1994 covers this same territory from an overtly personal perspective. Sieving 2011 provides a more narrowly focused and more analytically distanced view. The most active and influential portions of Poitier’s career, from the 1950s through the 1970s, coincide with the decline of the “old” Hollywood filmmaking system and the rise of “new” Hollywood (something all of these works acknowledge), so it is also useful to consider Poitier in the framework of radical changes in the mainstream American film production, distribution, and exhibition system. Harris 2008 provides case studies that illuminate these changes. However, few general histories of American film in this extended period of transformation pay sustained attention to Poitier’s career. Walker 1970 and, more recently, Harris 2008 and Stratchen and Mask 2014 are useful exceptions.

  • Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. 4th ed. New York: Continuum, 2001.

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    First published in 1973, this pathbreaking popular history recognizes Poitier’s “talent” but sees his roles and star image as primarily conveying “an old [uncle] tom dressed up with modern intelligence and reason” (p. 176).

  • Cripps, Thomas. Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    This important scholarly history focuses on Hollywood as an institution, its attempts to represent African Americans, and its responses to pressures from civil rights groups, government, and divergent audiences. Poitier figures prominently in the later sections of this story.

  • George, Nelson. Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

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    George, a music and cultural critic with Hollywood ambitions, examines African Americans in the movies through a strongly personal, memoirist lens. Provides a vivid sense of Poitier’s meaning to a young black man coming of age in Brooklyn in the 1960s.

  • Guerrero, Ed. Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

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    More narrowly focused and nuanced in its understanding of cinematic representation than Bogle 2001, but broader in scope and more urgently critical than Cripps 1993, this book sees Poitier’s star image as limited but also crucial to understanding black images in US film.

  • Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. New York: Penguin, 2008.

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    Examines how Hollywood filmmaking changed in the late 1960s via case studies of the Academy Award nominees for best picture in 1968. Poitier starred in two of them, and Harris suggests that he (and issues of race) were paradoxically both marginal and central to the “new” Hollywood.

  • Sieving, Christopher. Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

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    Focuses on the movies of the 1960s, the period that marked the peak of Poitier’s career, that were not Poitier movies. But Sieving shows that these movies were often implicit (and sometimes explicit) responses to or attempts to complicate Poitier’s image.

  • Stratchen, Ian Gregory, and Mia Mask, eds. Poitier Revisited: Reconsidering a Black Icon in the Obama Age. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

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    A collection of essays that encompass most of Poitier’s film career, from its beginning to about 1990. Especially useful for several analyses of Poitier in an international, rather than exclusively US, context.

  • Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. 5th ed. New York: Knopf, 2010.

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    A classic reference work, at once quirky and personal and well respected. Thomson’s entry on Poitier is sympathetic and sensitive to the complex mix of politics and aesthetics (or taste) that swirled around Poitier throughout his career.

  • Walker, Alexander. Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.

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    The penultimate chapter of this early study of Hollywood stardom, “Black Is Box-Office” (pp. 347–357), carefully examines Poitier’s stardom in the midst of changing times.

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