1.13.2022

sidney poitier, rest in power

Sidney Poitier was one of my favourite actors. He starred in two of my favourite movies that I watched as a child: "A Patch of Blue" and "To Sir, With Love". Of course I loved him in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "A Raisin in the Sun," and "Lilies of the Field", but it was those two early films that imprinted him in my heart.

Both those early movies led me to books, and I watched and read both, several times. 

I have a personal memory connected to Patch of Blue. The story revolves around the friendship between a Black man, played by Poitier, and a young woman who is white -- and blind. Selina is isolated and uneducated; she lives with her drunk, abusive grandfather and her mother, who is a sex worker. Through a chance meeting, the two become great friends and fall in love. Of couse Selina doesn't know that her friend is Black. Their friendship, let alone their love, is forbidden.

When I was 10, I spent the summer with my grandparents and great-aunts in Brooklyn. They were wonderful to me and I have only happy memories of them. They were also horribly racist. One night I watched A Patch of Blue on TV, not for the first time, and was telling them about it. They thought the movie was very sad, because "they loved each other but could never be together". I said, "Because he was so much older than her." They all gasped in horror, and fell all over each other correcting me, "No! They can't be together because he's a Negro!" They were genuinely concerned that I didn't understand this very important life lesson.

A Patch of Blue is about racism, about the unnecessary cruelty that keeps these two good people apart. But to my relatives, the movie was a tale of star-crossed lovers: how sad that she fell in love with a Negro and didn't realize it. Not how unjust and ridiculous it was that these two people should be apart. I always associate the movie with that conversation; I look back on it with amusement.

(A Patch of Blue was also part of the beginning of my interest in disability, along with a children's book called Follow My Leader about a boy who is blinded and his guide dog.)

I loved A Patch of Blue, but when I saw To Sir, With Love, I fell in love with Sidney Poitier. He was a great actor, a steadfast activist, and an incredibly important figure in film. I'm thinking a Sidney Poitier film fest in chez Kaminker-Wood is in order.

15 comments:

allan said...

I don't think I've seen any of his movies.

Amy said...

I loved To Sir With Love. I was in ninth grade, and my best friend and I went to see it. We cried our eyes out at the end. I really should watch it again.

I've seen GWCTD several times, and I remember how "radical" it was for its time. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn playing two characters who were supposed to be liberal struggle with seeing their daughter with a Black man is such a reflection of those times though I wonder how far we've really come. Poitier was brilliant---seething anger underneath that calm, sophisticated exterior. The scene with his own father is classic. But I admit my favorite scene is when Hepburn says to Tracy that if their daughter and Poitier love each other even only a half (or some other fraction) as much they themselves love each other, they will be fine. Of course, knowing that Hepburn and Tracy themselves had a forbidden love story made that scene resonate on several levels.

I never saw A Raisin in the Sun or In The Heat of the Night though have seen many clips from both.

laura k said...

I don't think I've seen any of his movies.

It looks like Prime in Canada has:
Lilies of the Field
In the Heat of the Night
To Sir, With Love
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Duel at Diablo (One I haven't seen)
The Slender Thread

Prime in the US also has A Patch of Blue and No Way Out. Maybe someone can "find" that for me.

Where to stream Sidney Poitier movies -- although likely in the US and not Canada

laura k said...

Amy, I watched just the last few minutes of To Sir With Love and was weeping. :)

There's a wonderful story about Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and the scene where a southern white man slaps Poitier's character across the face -- and the Black man slaps him back. Poitier made the studio keep that return slap in the movie -- he made it a condition of his contract! How cool is that! And how smart -- he knew they would want to cut it. When the movie was shown in theatres, Black people stood and cheered at that 2nd slap.

Amy said...

That scene was from In the Heat of the Night. I just saw it in a tribute to Poitier.

laura k said...

Oh yes, of course! What would a plantation owner be doing in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?! Thanks Amy.

Amy said...

The look on rod steiger’s face after that slap was priceless.

johngoldfine said...

Thinking about your racist relatives: my mother was born in 1922, and she certainly would not have considered herself racist: lifelong liberal Democrat and helped found a community-activist organization in largely-Black Roxbury. On the other hand, she had all the usual garden-variety prejudices against people of color, by which I mean that metaphorically she would clutch her purse closer if in the presence of someone of color who was of a lower class than she considered herself.

Around the time 'Patch of Blue' came out, we had an argument about miscegeny (such an ugly word) similar to yours with your relatives. For me, it was one of those incidents that changed things forever. I couldn't believe, but had to believe, that my mother entertained sadly retrograde notions. A decade later when Jean and I adopted a biracial child, she was incapable of disguising her ugliest side.

But, still, I say 'retrograde' because I don't want to say 'racist.' She was a product of her times and had progressive, if not (for the era) radical, ideas. To call her racist would lump her in with lynch mobs, segregationists, and so on, and that lumping would appall her, if for no other reason than her inveterate class snobbery!

From our vantage point, sure, she was racist. But the term itself is very much a moving target.

laura k said...

Thanks for sharing, John. It's interesting. I used to say similar things about my relatives. But now I use the term racist in its broader sense, the way the expression "white supremacy" is used now. I think the meaning has changed to incorporate all forms of racism, from the white hoods and lynch mobs to the Black people who value lighter skin over dark skin. I don't say my relatives were racists, as a noun, as if that word defines them, but their thoughts and behaviours were racist. As I'm sure mine have been at various times. I think the same could be said about almost everyone (if not everyone) in our society.

The difference between my racist thoughts and my relatives is that I am trying to be aware of mine and re-think them, lose them. Where my grandmother and her sisters were openly, overtly anti-Black and they thought that was good and natural.

You're being very kind to your mother by not labelling her thoughts and actions as racist, which comes from a place of compassion and understanding. I could be wrong, but it sounds like you've arrived at this word "retrograde" as a way of reconciling two dissonant ideas.

I loved my grandmother and my great-aunts so much, and I don't think it diminishes that love at all to recognize the racism they subscribed to. Especially since they're not around to hear it! :)

laura k said...

* I see some grammar and punctuation errors in my comment above and am not reposting it! Part of my ongoing effort to care less about those.

johngoldfine said...

No one else has ever suggested that I was being kind to my mother, much less "very kind"!

We did not have the 'ideal relationship,' and I use that mealy-mouthed term intentionally, lest by being specific and detailed, I lose my temper, yet again, at someone dead more than twenty years.

allan said...

US Approval Of Inter-Racial Marriage
1958: 4%
2021: 94%
Assuming honesty in answering, that is a startling reversal of opinion.
But then again, a different poll in 2018 found 20% said interracial marriage was "morally wrong".

1972 - Support For "Racially Mixed Marriages"
People under 30: 50%
People over 30: 30%

Whites' Personal Disapproval Of "Interracial Unions"
1958: Near unanimous
1972: 65%

laura k said...

John,I hear ya.

laura k said...

Attitudes towards so-called mixed marriages have undergone a sea change.

johngoldfine said...

My son-in-law is a redneck Trump enthusiast, and by any ordinary definition he is both racist and xenophobic. Given his prejudices, I don't know how he copes with the cognitive dissonance of marrying a biracial woman born in Asia and fathering a child whose appearance does not suggest a lot of Northern Europe in the mix.