In the movie of The Butler (2013) —one of the many tapes that are recommended these days to understand the protests that are taking place in the United States as a result of the murder of African-American George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police on May 25— Sidney’s name is mentioned Poitier once. It is a scene that reflects the multiple arguments between the protagonist, a black butler who serves in the White House, and his son, a stubborn young man who believes that change is achieved in a less peaceful way. While for the rest of the Poitier family he was worthy of admiration, for the boy he was only a mere actor who represented the concept of a black man according to the ideals of the whites, bowed to his orders.
A true reflection of what the figure of the interpreter truly meant in African-American society. On the one hand, there were those who applauded that Poitier was considered a star in Hollywood, which meant greater visibility for them and an advance in their rights. On the other, the detractors who used to refer to him as “black white”, as they believed that it was an industry ploy to hide that he continued to be extremely racist.
Many in the film mecca boasted of being tolerant and liberal. But if your daughter suddenly appeared with the shocking news that she was going to marry a black man, would they give their blessing to said marriage? That was the question he raised Guess who’s coming tonight (1967), where Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had raised their daughter, played by Katharine Houghton, with a set of values in which there was no room for discrimination. However, one thing is theory and another is practice, because both are overcome by fear of the challenges that the couple will have to face for the rest of their lives.
This is one of the actor’s most popular feature films, where he became one of the first black performers to kiss a white actress on screen. Of course, not captured by the camera directly, but through the rear-view mirror of a taxi. Poitier was the first black actor in many things. Also in winning the Oscar. He was nominated for Best Actor in 1959 for Fugitives, but he did not get the coveted statuette until 1964 thanks to his performance in Lilies of the valley. Now accustomed to protest speeches in this type of ceremony, his was concise. He gave thanks for the award, named a few people, including the film’s director and screenwriter, smiled excitedly, and left.
But that moment was historic for African Americans. An inspiration for host Oprah Winfrey, then 10 years old. “In 1964 I was a little girl sitting on the floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor. […]. The most elegant man I have ever remembered took the stage. His tie was white, his skin was black, and they were celebrating. I had never seen a black man being celebrated like this, “said the journalist at the 2018 Golden Globes. It was a moment that stuck in her mind, like many others of her race.
Later came other titles: Life is worth more, Classroom rebellion Y A man for Ivy, among others. Poitier was both in real life and in fiction a prudent, honest and educated man. The rectitude with which the actor acted in the world of whites was not well seen by all blacks, at a time when the figure of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers were opposed. But there were also whites who did not accept the integration that the actor experienced on celluloid. Poitier and Harry Belafonte were nearly killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, so when Poitier starred in 1966 In the heat of the night He refused to film in natural settings and the American South was recreated in Illinois. As they did not find a cotton plantation in the north, the team filmed for a few days in Tennessee, so the actor always slept with a gun under his pillow.
The thing to keep in mind is that the characters that Poitier played were not in accordance with the white audience, with simple mentalities and being helpful and obedient. Far from that, he came to the movies to change the perception of other races in an industry dominated by whites. “The type of black that appeared on the screens was always negative, buffoons, clowns, butlers, true outcasts. This was the context when I arrived 20 years ago and chose not to be part of the stereotypes … I want that when people leave the cinema they feel that the lives of human beings are important. This is my only philosophy about the films I make, ”he explained during an interview in 1967.
In that same conversation, she mentioned that her daughters – she has six, from two different marriages – went to the movies but seldom felt reflected in her plots. The black characters weren’t realistic. However, he, like so many other interpreters, has made Hollywood the starting point for social change. Already in his nineties, the actor left the cinema many years ago, but he continues to be widely applauded for opening the way to future actors. In 2002 he received the honorary Oscar and in 2009 Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom. “It has marked milestones of artistic excellence and the progress of the United States,” said the then president about the actor who has continued to be awarded more distinctions for his legacy. Some achievements and advances that he achieved without launching proclamations. Simply being discreet, consistent and hard-working.