Black Acts

Sidney Poitier

Playbills from "A Raisin in the Sun"

Black or White, Self Worth is an Everybody Kind of Thing: Racial Identity and the “Celebrity”

The work of Sidney Poitier defines an era of transition from casting strictly racially typecast roles to controversial and more flattering roles for African American actors. Through his various roles during the late 1950s and 1960s, Sidney Poitier helped pave the way for successful black actors to not only pursue unconventional, difficult, or otherwise boundary-breaking work, but to be seen in the eyes of the media and the general public as complicated, sophisticated, and talented professionals. In both his professional and private lives, Poitier stood as a symbol for the “new age” black man who could be serious, star opposite black and white actors and actresses, and live a racially diverse life on and off screen. His professional pursuits, rags-to-riches story, good looks, and charismatic personality catapulted him into the public eye as a role model and sex symbol, the combination of which heavily contributed to the evolution of his “celebrity” status.

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Through his work in two films in particular, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “A Raisin in the Sun”, Poitier set into motion a revolutionary archetype of the black man, both as actor and as individual, which has made it possible for such actors as Will Smith and Denzel Washington to play complicated and serious roles in the present day. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, the 1967 film starring, alongside Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, portrays the reaction of a “reasonably liberal” family to the notion that their white daughter intends to marry an African American man. Joey Drayton, the Caucasian female protagonist of the movie brings her fiancé, Sidney Poitier’s character Dr. John Prentice, home to meet her parents and despite the fact that he is successful, well dressed, and extremely articulate, the Drayton’s have a difficult time coming around to the idea that their daughter is set on marrying a black man. While they have raised her to consider all men equals, they never expected that she might actually fall in love with someone of another race. On the other hand, Mr. and Mrs. Prentice are similarly dissatisfied with the arrangement because of concerns about the difficulties that John and Joey will face as an interracial couple and the difficulties that their children will face being of mixed race. While today, the major contention of this movie is a circumstance that has become rather common, contemporary with its release, the film was extremely controversial and crossed several previously uncrossed lines.

Poitier’s role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, while monumental for the obvious reasons, is most notable because of the nuances of Dr. Prentice’s character. In addition to the complicated position in which he finds himself because of his age and most importantly, his understanding of the cruelty that the world can exhibit, Dr. Prentice’s character makes a statement regarding the intricacies of race-class dynamics, self-identification, and perhaps most interestingly, the relationship between an adult and a parent, all struggles that transcend race. In the most famous monologue of the film, Poitier tells his father,

You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad . . . Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I’ve got a decision to make, hm? And I’ve got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?

This dialogue showcases many of the issues central to the film and capitalizes upon the growing tension between John and his father. While it has been established before this point in the film that Prentice respects his father and does not seek to displease him, this speech reflects his frustration, not only at his parents, but also at their entire generation for perpetuating outdated beliefs upon the next one. Specifically, his comment about the fact that his father views himself as a “colored man” where John simply views himself as a man speaks to the difficulties of moving towards racial equality when racial biases exist not only on the part of the oppressors, but also on the part of the oppressed. It is critical that Prentice expresses his distaste for his father’s conceptions of a colored man’s “place in the world”, as it is the culmination of racial/class politics rooted in profession, history and self-identity issues. John Prentice sent a message to the black community limiting oneself because of a predetermined role in the world was unacceptable and furthermore, that confidence and ambition are rooted in something entirely separate from race.

The film makes a point of assessing reactions to John Prentice, and consequently the larger question of interracial relationships, from all sides. To highlight the breadth of the objections to this union, it is important to examine Joey’s relationship with the housekeeper Tillie, and subsequently, her reaction to Dr. Prentice. Tillie is an older black woman who has served as nanny to Joey and housekeeper to the Drayton’s for several years. While she is treated very well by 60s standards and largely considered a part of the Drayton family, the Drayton’s, and Tillie herself, understand her role as a part of the serving class. The tension between Tillie as being a servant in a white household and Dr. Prentice, a doctor attempting to marry into the family, is consistently palpable. While Tillie suggests that John is attempting to “get above himself”, he sees himself as a man not only attempting to overcome the prejudices of the white community, but also as one being made to feel uncomfortable about his successes by his own people.

Tillie’s position reflects one shared by many African Americans at the time, which was primarily that black people should “remember where they came from”, regardless of whether or not that meant sticking to certain professions, only going certain places, or marrying only certain people. Because of the injustices that many African Americans were forced to suffer, many were angered when they perceived another black person to be “making trouble”, or calling unwanted attention to the race.

John’s attitude, while largely self-serving, serves as the instrument of change in a society that from both sides, was stuck in its ways. From this perspective, the true controversy of the film was not John’s desire to marry a white woman but more instrumentally, his unwillingness to accept the place that society was trying to carve out for him. His character, much like Poitier himself, was interested in charting his own course: not necessarily for the “sake of the race”, but rather because he refused to be held back in his own ambitions by the expectations and prejudices of others.

As a consequence of Poitier’s controversial perspectives on and off of the big screen, his media representation reflected these views and attempted to find a place for him within a racially polarized social landscape. In the July 1963 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine, for example, Thomas B. Morgan’s article “Mr. Poitier: Uptown and Downtown” characterizes Poitier’s success in terms of his beginnings, the expectations placed upon him by virtue of his color, and conceptions of the ideal “box office star”.

Sidney Poitier, who is Hollywood’s symbolical angry, young, opportunity-hungry Black Man, seems to make the most of his opportunities. He was once a water boy in Nassau, working for ten shillings a day; and in his early twenties he was a dishwasher in an off-Broadway restaurant. Now at thirty-six, he owns the estate home built in Pleasantville, New York… by late A.A. Smith, president of the New York Central Railroad.

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Following a recurring theme throughout the media’s portrayal of Poitier in the early 60s, articles such as this feature focus inordinately, at least by today’s standards, on Poitier’s humble beginnings and unexpected trajectory. While there are certainly rags-to-riches celebrity stories today, the preponderance of said narratives are unassociated with culturally imposed racial limitations. This specific article, and many others like it, underscores a long-standing cultural emphasis on race and socioeconomic status. Despite his good looks, confident carriage, strong, articulate speaking voice, and proven talent, the American media continually qualified his abilities through the lens of his upbringing, or otherwise, the roles he was expected to play. The author of this article, Thomas B. Morgan’s, characterization of Poitier as the “symbolical angry, young, opportunity-hungry Black Man”, while intended to be a complimentary representation, plays into the polarizing stereotypes about black culture and the black man as a professional. Continuing to walk the thin line between complimentary and limiting, Morgan goes on to discuss Poitier’s off-screen persona and the expected trajectory of an American film star. He states

Poitier, as a matter of fact, is not precisely ordinary. He may not have the stature, in the box office sense of a Brando or a William Holden, but he is a star. Becoming a star is an industrial process, an overlapping, multi-staged procedure involving the actor’s appearance, his screen personality, his film roles, his publicity, his real life and his audience. The process is very expensive, and therefore certain unwritten rules have been established to minimize risks. Among these, the most basic is that an actor must have one or the other two essential characteristics to qualify for the so-called star buildup; that is, he must have white skin or, if not, a previous reputation for musical talent.

While it is unclear if these observations intend to reflect cultural trends contemporary with the piece or summarize the author’s personal perspective, his qualification of Poitier’s talents and subsequent analysis of the 1960s media consumer’s expectations proves an accurate assessment of the challenges Poitier faced. In addition to the expectations of the black community, the white community’s inclination to distinguish talent on a racial scale held him to doubly rigorous standards. Morgan’s discussion of “risks”, presumably on the behalf of the Hollywood film industry to mitigate costs, highlights the obstacles facing African American talent into the early 60s and the prohibitive nature of the requirements for “star buildup”. In particular, his summarization of the additional requirements governing black performance success such as musical talent, which only applied to black performers, represents a recurring theme in Black Theater dating back to blackface minstrelsy and the early vaudeville performance. The black man had to be a renaissance man, talented in all performance arts, to prove that he was worthy and capable of performing in a predominantly white sphere. Furthermore, being black, as it often still does today, necessitated more talent for recognition, whereas being white, as stated above, was enough to merit the “risks” of stardom.

In contrast to Poitier’s role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his work as Walter Lee Younger in the iconic 1961 A Raisin in the Sun serves to highlight the difficulties of finding one’s identity and accomplishing one’s dreams within the black community. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of the Younger family, a lower-middle class black family struggling to make ends meet until the death of the patriarch lands them with $10,000. The prospect of receiving so much money leads each member of the family to consider their lives’ dreams. The matriarch, Lena, would like nothing more than to buy a nice house like she’d always dreamed of in her youth, while the daughter Beneatha plans to go to medical school after college. Poitier’s character Walter Lee, the lackluster and unenthusiastic eldest son, wants to open a liquor store with a share of the money in the hopes that he will finally see a return on an investment. Throughout the movie, Walter Lee generally fulfills the “unsuccessful black man” stereotype that has taken on various connotations over the last fifty years. While it is clear that he loves his son, he loathes his position as a chauffeur, is largely disrespectful and unkind to his wife, is uncaring about the dreams of his family and proves to be terrible with money. After investing the bulk of his father’s insurance payoff into a liquor store and getting swindled, Walter Lee reaches rock bottom, shouting pessimistic life lessons at his family.

You all always telling me to see life like it is. Well — I laid in there on my back today . . . and I figured it out. Life just like it is. Who gets and who don’t get. Mama, you know it’s all divided up. Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the “tooken.” I’ve figured it out finally. Yeah. Some of us always getting “tooken.” People like Willy Harris, they don’t never get “tooken.” And you know why the rest of us do? ‘Cause we all mixed up. Mixed up bad. We get to looking ‘round for the right and the wrong; and we worry about it and cry about it and stay up nights trying to figure out ‘bout the wrong and the right of things all the time . . . And all the time, man, them takers is out there operating, just taking and taking.”

In the depth of his depravity, he begins to question the worth of morality and honesty and suggests that being cutthroat is the only way to get ahead. Like so many of Poitier’s characters, Walter Lee’s struggle isn’t inherently racial but is colored by race-related issues. His lack of self-confidence and pessimism about the world in this moment are unrelated to his being black. The interesting spin on his character however, is that through finding pride in his racial identity, he is actually able to find the strength to stand up for his family. Despite the potentially bad implications of Walter’s actions, his race-related redemption actually encourages viewers to take pride in their culture.
At the end of film, Walter, who has lost two-thirds of the insurance money, suggests that the family take an offer that they were given to not move into their new home in an entirely white neighborhood. Despite protestations from the family about knowing one’s self worth, Walter is convinced that taking this money will ease their financial troubles and that his conscious can bare the indignity. When Lena insists that he accept the money in front of his son however, Walter has a change of heart. Walter finally comes into his manhood and tells Mr. Lindner:

. . . That’s my sister over there and she’s going to be a doctor—and we are very proud– We come from a long time of proud people . . . And this is my son . . . and he makes the sixth generation of my family in this country . . . And he have all thought about your offer . . . and we decided to move into our house because my father — he earned it, brick by brick. We don’t intend to make no trouble or fight no causes, and we will try to be good neighbors. And that’s all had to say. We don’t want your money.

Beyond Poitier’s objectively moving performance in delivering this speech, its connotations are perhaps the most important of the entire film. While A Raisin in the Sun is meant to be inspiring, there is an alternate interpretation suggesting that for African Americans, money can literally make or break a family’s love for one another. This final scene, and Sidney Poitier’s performance in it, thwarts any such interpretation. Walter’s recognition of his father’s sacrifice and furthermore, the idea that his pride in his father’s work and legacy gives him the strength to turn down the money, is a powerfully transcendent message. Once again, Poitier’s role ultimately puts forth the imperative that self-worth and confidence are not derived from money, class, or race, but from something much more concrete: in this case, family. Walter Lee is a largely unlikable character for most of the film, but Poitier does an excellent job of providing insight into the mind of a man who is lost, but who finds himself through an acknowledgement of who he is.
Poitier’s off-screen persona was used to generate media hype surrounding his performance as Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun”, and interestingly enough, vice versa. An article featured in an 1959 issue of the New York Post entitled “The Sidney Poitier Story” quotes Hansberry’s own impressions of Poitier and what his persona added to the role.

Searching for a definitive expression for Poitier, Lorraine Hansberry, the author of “Raisin”, thought for a while and concluded: “The essence of this man is his ordinariness, which in the theater, makes him rather different. He’s a serious artist and he doesn’t create an off-stage personality. One of the most distinctive things about Sidney is that he’s not kukie.” Kukie, a Broadway label for a state that extends beyond the limits of merely eccentric, is one of Poitier’s favorite words and he rather enjoys applying it to himself to suggest some wild strain.

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It appears that the dichotomy between his serious, sophisticated personality, both on and off stage, with the concept of “kukieness”, effectively quirkiness, gives Poitier a texture that adds mystery and allure to his celebrity identity. The author goes on to emphasize this “kukieness”, stating “Poitier drinks moderately, occasionally smokes in excess approaches a race track and poker table with restrained vigor, and is capable of eating two meals in once sitting…” . Characterizations such as these really added to the notion of Poitier’s sex appeal and such media representations ultimately served as the origin for the modern-day Hollywood heartthrob. While today’s “clean” media is often reluctant to paint the use of substances in a positive light, portrayals such as these were likely far more effective in the wake of the late 50s “American Dream”, and activities such as smoking, drinking, and gambling implied a ruggedness and authenticity that suited Poitier’s good looks and unconventional seriousness. In conjunction with the evolution of Walter Lee Younger’s character, Poitier’s off-stage persona became richer through the knowledge that his seriousness was supplemented by depth and virile masculinity. Subsequently, the solidity of his masculinity, as represented by such articles, further emphasized the strength of his performance as Walter Lee, a character who struggles to come into his adulthood and accept his racial identity.
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The sensationalism surrounding Poitier’s unconventional assets sparked continuous media attention and complimented his talent in creating a celebrity persona, admired as both a role model and sex symbol. An article featured in the August 1951 edition of Our World Magazine entitled “Model Marries a Screen Star” serves as excellent context to Poitier’s stardom, even from the early 1950s. The article begins:

Until Negro magazines became popular, pretty girls could only daydream about glamorous careers in modeling. Now each year produces a fresh crop of hopefuls. Few of these starry-eyed girls ever make the cover girl trade. But 21-year-old Juanita Hardy did — in one Cinderella year that rewarded her with a Prince Charming.

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In addition to the valuable commentary that the tone of this article provides against the backdrop of social norms during the 1950s, it also lauds Poitier’s celebrity status. Despite its very patriarchal ideas, the suggestion that even more importantly than her modeling career, Hardy’s marriage to Poitier was definitively her greatest accomplishment. In his biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon”, Aram Goudsouzian states

Poitier was also a sex symbol, albeit a unique one. His appeal… was highest among women. Of course, he was tall, trim, and handsome. But he never played romantic leads, and he publicly avowed his preference for black women. Sexually too, then, Poitier occupied a middle ground. He had undeniable virility, which led white women to fantasi[ze] about taboo-defying interracial sex. But his mannered style counteracted the stereotype of the black buck, a threat heightened by ghetto riots.

While Poitier played roles opposite both black and white actresses, his expression of preference for black women and the fact that his first wife, Hardy, was black put Poitier on good footing with his African-American fans. His commitment to celebrating the beauty of black women in his personal life could only boost his appeal within the black community. Poitier continued to star in films, such as For Love of Ivy, which featured black women in a flattering light and leading capacity. In the booklet commemorating the American Film Institute’s celebration of Poitier’s Lifetime Achievement, Poitier himself is quoted as saying “I wanted to make a film that was, in a way, a recognition of the Negro woman’s existence, to say that I think she’s beautiful… I want them glamorized and idolized and put on a pedestal and spoiled rotten.”
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Conversely, Poitier’s 1976 marriage to a white woman, Joanna Simkus, stood to solidify his versatility and perpetuate the impression that Poitier was almost “immune” to racial constraints. Because of his sexual appeal to women of all colors during the rise of print media stardom, Poitier was featured in several magazines with stories highlighting his rags-to-riches beginnings and the impression his work had made on the American entertainment industry. In the wake of his 1964 Academy Award for Best Actor, making him the first African American man ever to win, Poitier was featured in several magazines in addition to Cosmo and Our World including Jet, Ebony, and Life, each magazine placing emphasis on his work, his origins, and his ever-increasing popularity.
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The American Film Institute’s Achievement Award Booklet claims:

Sidney Poitier has had to carry a heavier load of social significance than just about any other actor in history. In his more than 40 feature films, he rarely had the luxury of ignoring the larger implications of his characters’ actions. He was always judged twice: once for his performance and once for the worth of that performance to the advancement of human relations. That’s a lot to ask of any mere mortal. But then, there’s nothing “mere” about Sidney Poitier.

It seems that Poitier himself was aware of this fact and aimed to break stereotypes, or if he could not, to at least portray good ones. Goudsouzian’s biography quotes Poitier saying, “I’m the only Negro actor who works with any degree of regularity. I represent 10,000,000 people in this country, and millions more in Africa” . The weight of this knowledge informed Poitier’s acting as well as his personal life and reinforces the message that his collective work put forth. Sidney Poitier served as a role model for what the African American man could be, independent of his race, and he has ultimately has paved the way for ambitious black men to break the mold. Simultaneously, his revolutionary impact on the conception of black actors in the media made a lasting contribution to the idea of American stardom and the qualities that make a celebrity, regardless of racial prejudice.

Bibliography:

Primary Sources

“Autographed Photo of Sidney Poitier”. Philip Rose Papers (1944–2007). Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call # YCAL MSS 438, Box 9, Folder 233.
“Assorted Playbills from A Raisin in the Sun”. Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141.
Dudar, Helen. “The Sidney Poitier Story”. New York Post (1959). Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141.
“Lifetme Achievement Award Ceremony Booklet”. Philip Rose Papers (1944–2007). Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call # YCAL MSS 438, Box 12, Folder 265.
“Model Marries a Screen Star”. Our World Magazine (1951). Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141.
Morgan, Thomas B. “Mr. Poitier: Uptown and Downtown”. Cosmopolitan Magazine (July Issue 1963); Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature.Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141.

Secondary Sources

Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. United States: The university of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Thirtieth Anniversary Ed. (Revised). New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1987. Print.
Kramer, Stanley, dir. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Writ. William Rose. Columbia Pictures, 1967. Film. 1 Apr 2013.
Petrie, Daniel, dir. A Raisin in the Sun. Writ. Lorraine Hansberry. Columbia Pictures, 1961. Film. 1 Apr 2013.

Notes

xviii Kramer, Stanley, dir. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Writ. William Rose. Columbia Pictures, 1967. Film. 1 Apr 2013. back to text

xviii Morgan, Thomas B. “Mr. Poitier: Uptown and Downtown”. Cosmopolitan Magazine (July Issue 1963); Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141. back to text

xviii Morgan, Thomas B. “Mr. Poitier: Uptown and Downtown”. Cosmopolitan Magazine (July Issue 1963); Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141. back to text

xviii Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Thirtieth Anniversary Ed. (Revised). New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1987. Print. back to text

xviii Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Thirtieth Anniversary Ed. (Revised). New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1987. Print. back to text

xviii Dudar, Helen. “The Sidney Poitier Story”. New York Post (1959). Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141. back to text

xviii Dudar, Helen. “The Sidney Poitier Story”. New York Post (1959). Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141. back to text

xviii “Model Marries a Screen Star”. Our World Magazine (1951). Clippings file of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, (1920–1985). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call #JWJ MSS 89, Box 140/141. back to text

xviii Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. United States: The university of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print. Page 272. back to text

xviii “Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony Booklet”. Philip Rose Papers (1944–2007). Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call # YCAL MSS 438, Box 12, Folder 265. back to text

xviii “Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony Booklet”. Philip Rose Papers (1944–2007). back to text

xviii Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. United States: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Print. Page 273. back to text

Magazine Cover Features
Autographed photo of Sidney Poitier
American Film Institute Life Achievement Award Booklet
Mr Poitier: Uptown and Downtown
"Model Marries a Screen Star"
The Sidney Poitier Story