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Remembering Sidney Poitier

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we remember Sidney Poitier, who died yesterday at the age of 94. He is arguably the best-known Black movie star of Hollywood's modern era. NPR's Walter Ray Watson spoke with two people familiar with Poitier's film career and has this appreciation.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Sidney Poitier often played ambitious, hopeful Black men, if highly idealized role models. He succeeded in showing their humanity and drew attention away from pervasive and painful stereotypes.

DONALD BOGLE: Well, I think he's going to be remembered in many respects because he broke the mold.

WATSON: Donald Bogle has written several books on Black artists in TV and movies navigating a world that often undervalued their contributions. For Bogle, Sidney Poitier is important for many reasons.

BOGLE: We think of him because of the roles that he played and their social or political, racial significance. But he, as an actor, he really holds the screen.

WATSON: Poitier's performances always had a special something, Bogle says, dating back to the actor's very first movie from 1950, "No Way Out."

BOGLE: He plays a young doctor, and Poitier really exudes this intelligence. He has this kind of moral authority in the film.

WATSON: As Dr. Brooks, Poitier seeks approval and acceptance both on-screen and with the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO WAY OUT")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Dr. Luther Brooks) I've applied to stay on here another year.

STEPHEN MCNALLY: (As Dr. Dan Wharton) Junior resident? Why?

POITIER: (As Dr. Brooks) Because I think it's more important than a few extra dollars, a little easier living. I've got a lot to learn.

MCNALLY: (As Dr. Wharton) Well, you'll always have a lot to learn.

WATSON: Donald Bogle says Poitier was also a member of a new and different crop of male movie stars who came of age after World War II, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, James Dean among them, all showing different approaches to demonstrating masculinity. But Bogle says Poitier's position is a breakout for representing a different kind of Black manhood.

ELVIS MITCHELL, BYLINE: The thing that I think Poitier never gets the credit for which he deserves is that he is an extraordinarily generous actor.

WATSON: That's Elvis Mitchell, host of KCRW's program The Treatment.

MITCHELL: And whenever he's on screen, what you're struck by is the intensity to which he listens to everything somebody says to him. I mean, he's waiting with his whole body to respond. And I think that's one of the things that people really got about him as an actor because he was all so often alone. Until the late '60s, he didn't get to be in movies, basically, with other Black people.

WATSON: Mitchell says Poitier's charisma comes through in movies like "The Defiant Ones" with Tony Curtis, where they're two fugitives, one Black, one white, chained together and on the run.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DEFIANT ONES")

POITIER: (As Noah Cullen) You said one day we were going to tangle, Joker. You said the time was going to come. And that time is now.

WATSON: Before "The Defiant Ones," Poitier reportedly was forced to accept the lead in the film version of "Porgy And Bess" or risk losing his ability to work in studio films. Again, Elvis Mitchell.

MITCHELL: What "The Defiant Ones" gave him a chance to do, which he literally wasn't able to do in "Porgy And Bess," is played to his biggest asset, which is his incredible physical presence. I mean, he's an extraordinary physical presence just in terms of being a camera subject. Your eye goes to him.

WATSON: Elvis Mitchell says in the 1960s, television helped make American audiences comfortable with Sidney Poitier.

MITCHELL: And as Mark Harris mentions in his book "Pictures At A Revolution," Sidney Poitier became a movie star by virtue of his movies playing a lot on television in the '60s.

WATSON: At least half of Poitier's body of work was playing on small screens by the time "In The Heat Of The Night" comes to movie houses in 1967. Poitier plays Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who investigates a murder down South. Mitchell says the conceit of the movie is a funny yet unintended joke.

MITCHELL: The joke is Sidney Poitier being in the dead South and, in the heat of the night, wearing this beautiful, handmade suit and it not being silly but you just sort of thinking, well, he was born to wear that suit. I mean, he's an enormously stylish man and has so much physical wit and elegance that it completely makes sense, and that becomes part of the joke. This guy has been dropped in the middle of nowhere to fend for himself. And, of course, he has the tools to do so.

WATSON: "In The Heat Of The Night" is a high mark in Poitier's his career. Donald Bogle says Poitier's previous roles showed a wide range of emotion, including anger, but with "In The Heat Of The Night," he did even more. There's Virgil Tibbs' famous slap of a rich and powerful white suspect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There was a time when I could have had you shot.

WATSON: And this scene - the bigoted white sheriff in this town uses the N-word and says to Poitier's character something to the effect of, boy, what do they call you?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT")

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) They call me Mr. Tibbs.

WATSON: Black audiences have not forgotten that. I mean, that - there was such confidence and such assertion there.

As Black pride and Black power became more popular expressions, Poitier fell out of favor. Donald Bogle says the interracial comedy "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" had Poitier playing a highly educated and sophisticated doctor while his fiance is white and ordinary. The onus, Bogle says, is on Sidney Poitier's character to prove his worth to future in-laws played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

BOGLE: I think he agonized over it, and he really wanted to reconnect to the African American community.

WATSON: After that, Poitier started directing movies. "Buck And The Preacher," a Western about Black settlers, co-starred his lifelong friend, activist and actor Harry Belafonte. He also directed comedies like "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Let's Do It Again" with large Black casts. In 1980, he scored a big box office hit with "Stir Crazy," starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Again, Elvis Mitchell.

MITCHELL: There's probably no filmmaker who can't thank Sidney Poitier, certainly, coming basically a generation after he did - because Poitier becomes a lesson, maybe an object lesson to what you think you didn't want to do and kind of rebelling against that but also a lesson that you can sort of make your own world.

WATSON: Mitchell points to Spike Lee as an example, and he adds Sidney Poitier was no longer separated from his people, Black artists and audiences. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO SIR WITH LOVE")

LULU: (Singing) If you wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high, to sir, with love. The time has come for closing books, and long last looks must end. And as I leave... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.