Remembering Sidney Poitier : Pop Culture Happy Hour Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier died last week at age of 94. He was a man of many firsts, including the first Black performer to win the best actor Oscar for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. He was also a humanitarian who was active during the civil rights movement, and also someone who was quite obviously dedicated to his craft. And today we remember Poitier's work, including In The Heat Of The Night and To Sir With Love.

Remembering Sidney Poitier

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Sidney Poitier has died at the age of 94. And to call him a Hollywood legend would hardly do his career and legacy justice. He was a man of many firsts, including the first Black performer to win the Oscar for Best Actor, and a humanitarian who was active during the civil rights movement. He was also someone who was quite obviously dedicated to his craft and would turn in many performances that resonate to this day. I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're remembering the films and legacy of Sidney Poitier on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARRIS: Joining me today is Odie Henderson. Odie is a film critic at rogerebert.com. It's great to have you back, Odie.

ODIE HENDERSON: Thanks for having me.

HARRIS: Now, even if you've never seen a Sidney Poitier movie before, I'm sure you're probably aware at least of his legendary status. Among his many accomplishments, he originated the role of Walter Lee Younger in the Broadway production of "A Raisin In The Sun" and played him again in the 1961 movie adaptation. In 1964, he became the first Black performer to win an Oscar for Best Actor for "Lilies Of The Field." And then in the 1970s and '80s, he got behind the camera and directed a number of notable films, including "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Stir Crazy."

It can be really easy to talk about Poitier in terms of how he broke ground. But I think it's really worth noting that one of the biggest reasons he loomed so large was those performances. Whether he was playing a doctor, a detective, a schoolteacher or a limo driver, he was a really dedicated actor who was able to both channel and transcend cultural anxieties and look good doing it. To remember him, we're going to highlight a few of those roles here, some you might be familiar with and some, perhaps, a little less known. So the first movie we want to start with is actually Sidney Poitier's first starring role in a feature film. It's "No Way Out," which was released in 1950. And he plays Luther Brooks, who is the first Black doctor at a hospital. Now, Odie, this was your first pick. Can you talk a little bit about why you really like Sidney Poitier in this movie?

HENDERSON: "No Way Out" is a really strange debut for Sidney in one respect in that, No. 1, he's a doctor in this film. So he starts off in a role that you wouldn't normally see Black people in in Hollywood films. And No. 2, it's probably the angriest movie he's in until he started directing his own pictures. I mean, Sidney is allowed to have a little bit of rage here.

HARRIS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO WAY OUT")

SIDNEY POITIER: (As Luther) Dr. Wharton, there are Negroes who are pathological white haters. If I were a white man and one of them thought I had murdered his brother, I'd be afraid, too. I've got to have that autopsy.

STEPHEN MCNALLY: (As Dan) It's occurred to you, hasn't it? The autopsy could show you we're wrong.

POITIER: (As Luther) What chance would you say?

MCNALLY: (As Dan) Maybe 50-50.

POITIER: (As Luther) Without it, I'm all wrong.

HENDERSON: He's professional. And he's up against Richard Widmark, who is a racist in this town. And the whole point of the film is Sidney is treating Richard Widmark's racist brother and the brother dies. And it brings out all of this other racism. And there's a race riot where the Black people actually win, which is, like, stunning. And it's so strange that Sidney starts out so strong out of the gate in such a movie that is so unusual for a Black actor. And then the next thing you know, there's, like, years before he's allowed to do something like that. But it's a fascinating noir. It's got Linda Darnell. It's a fox noir.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HENDERSON: Ruby Dee is in it. It's a tough movie. But it's a fascinating movie simply in the context of when it was made, which, again, is 1950. I can't think of another Black doctor in a film for quite a while.

HARRIS: Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned that rage because it's often forgotten that it was present there in his earliest role because so much of the conversation around him for the following years, in part because he never really got another chance to do it for several years, was the fact that there were critics who called him sort of a sellout and Uncle Tom, that he was too buttoned up, too perfect and not someone you wanted to aspire to, especially by the late 1960s. And you're right to call it strange because in a way, it feels like the prototype for a lot of movies that would come after, where it's like, you have this obviously white racist person and even a criminal to some extent. And then you have this Black person who has to be dignified and help this person in some way, despite the fact that they're hurling insults at them. Like...

HENDERSON: Right.

HARRIS: I feel like we've seen that from Hollywood's playbook many times since then. It's interesting to think about. And while I don't think it necessarily goes as far as I think a lot of people would like, even looking back on it now, again, it was 1950. And it is revolutionary. And he's great in it.

HENDERSON: His last line is pretty tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO WAY OUT")

POITIER: (As Luther) Don't cry, white boy. You're going to live.

HENDERSON: I mean, that's just tough, hard noir. And you don't get that from Black folks.

HARRIS: And the way he says that - he says it with, like, disdain in a way or, like, resentment because he's like, I still helped you, dude. Like even...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Even throughout all of this, you didn't want to take my help. You tried to kill me. But I still helped you. (Laughter) It's like...

HENDERSON: Absolutely. That comes with a little extra added piece of rage. I mean, there's a lot of movies where Black characters have to, basically, sacrifice themselves in some fashion for the white character so they can learn. This one has some bite to it.

HARRIS: Yeah, a little bit of bite there. Now, the one I wanted to choose first, it's called "Paris Blues." It's from 1961. And it's this, like, really interesting film that's based off of a book by Harold Flunder. And it stars Sidney and Paul Newman as two expat jazz musicians living in Paris. And Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll play these two women friends who are traveling for holiday in Paris. And they meet. And at first, you think that Paul Newman and the Diahann Carroll character are going to link up together. And they kind of have this flirtatious meet cute on the train that I just - it's smoldering. I love it.

And in the original book, it was about an interracial romance. But apparently, Hollywood was not ready for that yet. And so they changed it to linking up Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier's character and the Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman character. Now, I understand a lot of people lament the fact that the movie didn't do that. But I actually kind of like the fact that it winds up being those two pairings because you get to see Sidney for the first time, I think, really interact in a more, like, kind of sexual way. Like, he's clearly flirting. Like, also, him and Diahann Carroll actually had a real-life affair for several years.

HENDERSON: Right.

HARRIS: So like, they were acting, but they weren't. And it's great to see him just be really, really sexy in a way that he wasn't able to be in most of the movies that preceded. And I want to play a clip from it because you can hear it's just so - I don't understand how Diahann Carroll is, like, sort of flirting but also resisting. Like, I wouldn't be resisting in this moment. But that's what's happening. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PARIS BLUES")

DIAHANN CARROLL: (As Connie) Well, it's lovely.

POITIER: (As Eddie) So are you. And I've never said that to any of them before - well, not more than one of them. Not more than one on this bridge.

HARRIS: It's just so sexy.

HENDERSON: It is.

HARRIS: I love it (laughter). It's such a beautiful little movie. And I also appreciate that it's not just about flirtation between those two characters. They also have these very deep and heavy conversations about what it means to be Black. And Diahann Carroll's character is like, I want to be at home with my people. Like, I'm looking forward to going back home. And his character says, you know, no. I want to stay here. I like being here because - and this is, you know, obviously coming after James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and other Black American artists who have lived in - they were living in Paris. He's like, look; here, I can be a musician. In America, I'm a Negro musician. And I think it's just - those conversations, seeing those play out and the way in which they feel still so relevant today, I just think that that movie is somewhat overlooked. And I wish more people would see it. But it's a really lovely movie.

HENDERSON: It's quite overlooked. It's Martin Ritt, I think, directed this one.

HARRIS: Yes.

HENDERSON: He had a good eye for this type of thing, allowing Black people to exist in their own - I won't say universe but with their own issues and with their own loves and fears and worries, abstracted from whatever else is going on. "Sounder," which he also directed, is another good example of the world exists. You're living in the world that you are in. And everything else that's around it kind of is extraneous. It's good that he even mentions that in this period of time, you know, for this movie to even bring that up - and to kind of say that in Paris, he was just a musician. And I play the trumpet. And I play the piano. So I always watch people. I think both Sidney and Paul Newman are convincing musicians.

HARRIS: Yeah. So the next movie that I want to talk about is actually a few years later. It's a little-known movie called "In The Heat Of The Night." You might have heard of it (laughter). I think it's the closest we get after "No Way Out" to a little bit more rage. At least it's a lot of simmering rage that I think is translated in Sidney Poitier's character. Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs. He's a police detective from Philadelphia who finds himself roped into helping solve a murder in Deep South, in Mississippi. And it's directed by Norman Jewison. And it co-stars Rod Steiger as the local cop Poitier works alongside. And Rod Steiger and pretty much all the other white characters in this movie are just flat-out racists.

And it's a lot of Sidney, again, having to simmer, keep his rage or his, like, annoyance at everyone around him who - and it's stated very clearly in many scenes, like, he is by far - he's an expert. He knows what he's doing. You can see it happening. But, of course, he still has to deal with all this racism from all these various people. And what I like about this performance is that there are so many moments where it's communicated through his body language and through his face. Obviously, there's the famous slap scene, where he is interrogating one of the suspects of this murder, an older white man, and the white man slaps him. And without flinching, he slaps him back. And then, of course, there's the even greater moment afterwards, where there is a Black servant who is in the room. And after Virgil and the Rod Steiger character have left, the servant just kind of looks at this white employer and shakes his head. So much of it is based on his body language, and so I want to play a little clip that really demonstrates just the sort of tension that is bubbling within Sidney Poitier's character. And so in this scene, the Rod Steiger character has just gotten off the phone with Sidney's boss to confirm that he is actually who he says he is. And Sidney's just, like, counting the money, and you can hear him sort of pause and then count it again. And you can just see how annoyed he is by this entire interaction.

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

ROD STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Well, now you are the No. 1 homicide expert.

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) That's right.

STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Boy, I bet you get to look at a lot of dead bodies, don't you?

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) Lots.

STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Well?

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) Well, what?

STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Well, I - no, I just thought maybe you wouldn't mind taking a look at this one.

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) No, thanks.

STEIGER: (As Gillespie) Why not, expert?

POITIER: (As Virgil Tibbs) Because I've got a train to catch.

HARRIS: The way in which he is always pulling it back in, I think - you could argue that it's, again, this classic Sidney character where he's got to keep his composure and rise above it. When they go low, we go high. But I also think, like, it makes for a really fascinating performance that I think - he wasn't nominated for the Academy Award for this.

HENDERSON: No, Steiger won.

HARRIS: Which is wild to me, and he should have. Because I think this is an even better role than the one he won for. But what are your thoughts on "In The Heat Of The Night"? Are you a fan of this movie?

HENDERSON: Oh, I love this movie. What's different about this Sidney character - and it kind of goes back to "No Way Out" - is that he is an expert and he knows he's an expert, and he's perfectly willing to rub it in from all those white folk that don't think that he's worth anything because he's Black. And Sidney plays this much harder here in this movie, and he just relishes the fact - this is one of the times when the white characters know they are outmatched, and they have no choice but to accept that they are. And Sidney's going to have a little fun with that. Some of his body language, as you say, the dialogue with the others - all these little things that he's doing in the movie, if you watch it from the perspective of that, he's kind of being a butt because he's an expert, but he's appropriately being one because they are trying to misjudge him at every level. And he's going to show them up, and he's going to enjoy showing them up.

HARRIS: Also, it's one of those movies that just looks hot.

HENDERSON: Yeah.

HARRIS: You can just feel the heat (laughter). It's called "In The Heat Of The Night." And it just emits that, like - just, like, kind of swampy, deep Mississippi heat.

HENDERSON: And everybody's got a suit on.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HENDERSON: And you can tell that they're hot.

HARRIS: Oh, God. No one looks happy in this movie (laughter).

HENDERSON: No.

HARRIS: Well, I want to move on to another movie that came out that same year. In fact, Sidney had three movies that year that were huge. The other one besides this one was "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," which was also nominated for a best picture that year. And obviously, they're, like, kind of two sides of very different coins in terms of how they deal with race on their face. But the other movie you wanted to bring is "To Sir, With Love."

HENDERSON: If I were honest, I would say that this is my favorite Sidney Poitier performance. And there's a couple of reasons why. One, it's a sweet little movie. It's - we look at the teacher genre now, and we see a lot more cliches. But this is 1967. Also, it's a Black teacher, and I come from a family of teachers. And in my schooling, I didn't have that many Black teachers until I got to, like, almost high school - middle of high school, pretty much. And I went to a public school in a Black neighborhood.

HARRIS: Oh, wow. It wasn't till college for me.

HENDERSON: Seeing him on the screen and just him being a teacher and just him interacting with these kids and they make - he makes them call him sir. I think this may have been the first time I saw, like, a Black person being respected on the screen. Because this was on TV a lot when I was a kid. Seeing him on the screen and commanding this respect - it just made me feel like - I don't know. I just felt warm, and I felt, like, so warm towards Sidney's character in this movie. And he kind of wins over these kids. It's almost kind of a similar story - the Black guy's winning over the white kids. But it's a little bit different in terms of the power dynamic. And then, of course, there's that song.

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

LULU: (Singing) To sir, with love.

HARRIS: I love that song (laughter).

HENDERSON: When Lulu starts to sing that song, right before she gives him the present, I'm gone. I start crying. It's ridiculous. It gets to me, this movie. And I really like movies about teachers. I think my love of the teacher genre, the beloved teacher genre, works because I saw this movie. And it's almost a flip side of - Sidney was one of the hooligans in the "Blackboard Jungle." Now he's teaching the hooligans here.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

HENDERSON: So the flip side of that is really interesting. I'm a sucker for this movie, I'm sorry.

HARRIS: Aw, it's OK (laughter). I wouldn't put it up there with my favorites of his. I think in part because, as you mentioned, it is part of that genre of film that we would see later on, like "Stand And Deliver" and "Dangerous Minds." Part of the younger generation - and that's what we grew up with. And then seeing it, I was like, oh, this is - is this one of the places this is coming from? But I do have to say, like, it is moving in a way that those other movies are not. And I think it does owe a lot of that to the Sidney Poitier character and the real chemistry he has with those students. And that song - (singing) if you wanted the sky, I would write - you said you wouldn't sing, but I said I might sing. So (laughter) it's a great song (laughter).

Well, we have talked a lot about his onscreen performances. But before we close out, I think it's important to acknowledge that he was also a pretty prolific director for several years, starting in the '70s. And you wanted to talk about his directorial debut, which was "Buck And The Preacher."

HENDERSON: It was interesting that he chose to make a Western as his debut. And it's a very fascinating Western. I watched it recently. And it's much darker than I remember. I mean, it's got comedic aspects. It's got Harry Belafonte in it. And he's naked. For people that love Harry Belafonte, he's running around nude in this.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HENDERSON: And he has a conversation between Native Americans and the Black soldiers who were - and people who were coming out West. And there's some dissent. And I can't think of a movie before that that even brought this up. It was a little bit of a history lesson for me growing up when I saw this movie that this even existed. They give you that kind of - the way they treat the Native American characters in this Western is much different than they treat them in most other Westerns.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HENDERSON: "The Harder They Fall" kind of owes a debt to this movie, the Netflix "Harder They Fall" Western. And that has Black people as what they were, cowboys. I mean, a lot of the rodeo stuff was invented by Black cowboys. And Sidney brings this in. It's almost like, I'm going to change my image because when he started directing movies, when he got Blacker, when he became - he came back to us. Let me put it that way.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

HENDERSON: Sidney was returned to Black folks when he started directing because it allowed him to be Black, to be romantic, to be sexy, to be violent, to be all the things he could not be under the Hollywood system. And this movie is really interesting in that that was his debut. It's not a perfect picture but it's certainly a fascinating one in terms of how it treats history of the West.

HARRIS: You know, you could see that he was finally able to be the sort of actor that he was supposed to be. He should've been playing different kinds of characters, outlaws, people who weren't just, like, these fine, upstanding citizens. Then to have the combination of him and Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee as his wife (laughter)...

HENDERSON: Yes.

HARRIS: It's just, like, you're just watching this Black Hollywood royalty on screen getting to delve into - yes, the issues are still very much about race. But it's from their perspective.

HENDERSON: Yes.

HARRIS: And it is being told in a way - like, there's a moment where Sidney Poitier's character slaps a madam, this white madam, owner of a brothel. And it happens very quickly. And it's very much in the vein of that, like, sort of misogynistic, hysterical woman going crazy...

HENDERSON: Right.

HARRIS: ...And then the guy slaps her. So it's not, like, the best depiction of a man towards a woman. But at the same time, it's kind of revolutionary that he was even able to do that. Like, I think of that and that connection to the slap in "In The Heat Of The Night" as, like, OK, he's loosening up. He's able to be a bit more rebellious than he ever got a chance to be.

HENDERSON: And "Uptown Saturday Night" brings that out. I mean, some of the clothes they have on in that movie are insane.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

HENDERSON: I mean, even by '70s' standards, they're insane.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HENDERSON: And so he really loosens up. But Sidney was never really funny. Denzel does the same thing Sidney does with the kind of, ha, ha-ha - that kind of thing he does in his voice where he kind of - he's trying to make a joke or he's making a joke without necessarily explicitly doing so. But he's funny. I mean, he gets to be funny. He gets to have massively ridiculous laughs. Slapstick things happen to him. And it's almost like Hollywood was pigeonholing him as this respectable, you know, Black person. I mean, he couldn't do anything. So it made him so static. That's why a lot of people, like Melvin Van Peebles and so on, didn't like him and thought that he was, you know, basically a Tom because Hollywood was forcing him into those roles. And this is kind of his liberation.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HENDERSON: They always say that, you know, you want to make the movie you want to make, that you want to be in, you direct it. And that's what he did.

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I think it's safe to say that his legacy has been reconsidered and for the better because we understand, with hindsight, what he was up against. And I'm just so glad we were able to see him loosen up and be able to express himself in ways that he wasn't before. And obviously, there are a lot of movies that we didn't mention. He had a very long career. So if we didn't mention your favorite, it doesn't mean we didn't like them or that we haven't seen them. It's just we couldn't talk about all of them because he was a legend. So thank you, Odie, for chatting with me about Sidney Poitier. It was a pleasure, as always, to have you on.

HENDERSON: Thank you. This is fun.

HARRIS: And we want to know your favorite Sidney Poitier films and performances. So find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. We'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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