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The Sidney Poitier Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
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May 27, 2024 3:00 am

The Sidney Poitier Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 27, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Sidney Poitier's elegant bearing and principled onscreen characters made him Hollywood's first black movie star and the first black man to win the best actor Oscar. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon was the first full biography of legendary actor Sidney Poitier written by Aram Goudsouzian, professor of history at the University of Memphis.

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See terms and conditions 18 plus. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Up next, a story about Sidney Poitier, perhaps the most important actor of the 20th century, and certainly an actor who taught us all how to live and how to conduct ourselves. Sidney Poitier, man, actor, icon, was the first full biography of Poitier written by a professor of history at the University of Memphis, which is just an hour north of where we broadcast in Oxford, Mississippi. So Greg Hengler took the short drive north to get the story.

Let's take a listen. My name is Aaron Goodzusian. I'm a professor of history at the University of Memphis. And the first book I ever wrote was Sidney Poitier, man, actor, icon, in 2004.

And that book was originally my PhD dissertation when I was a student at Purdue University. Sidney was born on Cat Island, which is one of the out islands in the Bahamas. In other words, it was a primarily rural, agricultural island on the cusp of the Bahamas. And it was a fairly isolated place in his childhood when he was growing up in the 1930s. It was in the midst of the Great Depression.

It was a place that still had kind of a barter economy rather than a cash economy. And there was sort of a lot of freedom for a young child like Sidney Poitier to roam. Sidney was the youngest of seven children. I think there were five brothers and two sisters. The oldest brother, Cyril, was about 15 years older than he was. And having a big family like the Poitiers was more the rule than the exception on Cat Island. Because these were farming families for the most part, the more children you had, the more people you could put to work.

So they were instilled with these values of hard work and personal discipline from their earliest beginnings. Cat Island was an idol. He was there when he was still a young boy. And he just remembers being able to roam freely, to play, to swim, to fish. For young children, Cat Island was a gigantic playground. After chores, Sidney often roamed the island unsupervised, wandering down narrow, flower-lined paths, building mud huts, collecting turtle eggs, swimming in the Atlantic, and climbing sapodilla trees to shake down the plump, gray-brown fruit and eat until his stomach ached.

He caught fish, added peppers and limes, and stewed it in a can over a fire on the beach. His imagination drifted out to sea, to the world beyond Cat Island. I'd stand on the pier, as he recalled, and watch the ships until they disappeared. And then I'd just stare at that line and dream. I was a real dreamer. I'd conjure up the kind of worlds that were on the other side and what I'd do in them.

So many hours I stared at that line. He would later credit that as kind of giving him some of the tools of an actor, the physical expressiveness, the ability to sort of experiment physically, just sort of gave him a sense of his body, as he put it, that would have benefited him in his professional career as an actor. But at the same time, there was crushing poverty. And so his family moved to the capital city of Nassau. And it was there that Poitier really started to have to endure more struggles. He was growing into his teenage years, but now he was in an urban environment.

He would sometimes engage in petty crime, and he ran into trouble sometimes with the colonial authorities because the Bahamas was still a British colony at the time. And this was really sort of rubbed his father the wrong way. His father, Reginald Poitier, was very much a disciplinarian, a man who had survived basically on the basis of his hard work.

He'd been a tomato farmer back in Cat Island and just was used to backbreaking labor. And his father really emphasized lessons of personal virtue, of hard work, of taking responsibility for yourself. And the famous lesson that he cast down to his son was that the measure of a man is how he provides for his family. And that was the lesson that kept coming back to Sydney as he grew into adulthood, as he reflected on his own life later on. That was the big legacy that his father had left him. So his mother, Evelyn, was the one who basically taught him more the lessons of how to be a good human, how to live amongst others, how to be a participating member in society. And he saw that firsthand in some of the jobs that she had to take on when they moved to Nassau, when Reginald had become sort of too old and too frail and too sickly to work successfully. And she took all the odd jobs she could to provide for the family.

She even took a job called pounding rock, basically turning rock into powder. And she was the one who especially insisted on sort of the personal codes of respect for others, of looking out for your family. She enforced that more on a daily level in his life. And these were values, the values of his parents were values that would stick with him forever. You know, toward the end of his life, he was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors. And when everyone in the massive theater was standing and applauding and cheering him, he stood up and he looked up into the skies and you could see him mouth, my mother, my father.

So it was almost by an accident of history that Sidney Poitier had American citizenship. He was born in Miami only because his parents had sailed to Miami to sell their tomato crop. And Sidney was not due to be born still for quite some time. But then while they were in Miami, his mother Evelyn gave birth to him prematurely. And it appeared that he wasn't going to survive to the point where his father even went out and bought a tiny coffin to bury him in that was no bigger than a shoebox.

But his mother fiercely insisted that Sidney would survive, that he would live. And she even went to the point of visiting a soothsayer, a fortune teller. And the fortune teller assured her that he would live, that he would grow on to do great things, that he would even walk with kings. And Evelyn just sort of absorbed that message. She took it as sort of an element of faith. And she went back to her husband and said, you know, no, this child is going to live.

We're going to nurse him to health. And that's what happened. And you're listening to Aram Gudzusyan tell the story of Sidney Poitier. And what a story indeed. He grows up in this idyllic, real, remote part of the Bahamas called Cat Island. And he was able to roam free, a part of a rural family background, and every other family was like it.

Lots of kids because they were labor, but then all that time to roam free and imagine and dream and play. And then he goes to Nassau, the bigger city, and things start to turn south. He starts to get into trouble. Boy, did we learn a lot about his mother and his father, and we already start to understand more about this remarkable actor and his life's work. My goodness, watch his movies now, hearing what we just heard, and you'll understand so much more about Sidney Poitier's life when we come back. More of the life story of Sidney Poitier here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns, but we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to our americanstories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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And that began the next chapter in his life. In the Bahamas, there's a black majority, the majority of the population is black, and so there weren't the same codes of segregation, there weren't the same codes of direct racial exploitation that Sidney was very shocked to find when he came to Miami, which was part of the Jim Crow South in this era. And he found himself just absolutely flummoxed by not only legal segregation, but also the informal codes that govern black life in the South.

So one of the odd jobs that he picked up when he moved to Miami was working as a delivery boy. And the first time that he did a delivery in a white neighborhood, he knocked on the front door, and the person who answered the door screamed at him and told him to go to the back door. And he had no idea why he would do that, but that was the racial code of the time.

A black person is not supposed to go to the front door of a white person's home. And he was so sort of flummoxed that he just left the delivery at the front door and bicycled away. After some time in Miami, Sidney knew that he wanted to leave. He knew that the racial codes of the Deep South were not for him, a need to get out of there.

And he didn't even really know how to do it at first. He tried to hop on a train, just assuming that it would take him to the North, sort of living by this mythical idea of you could hop on a train to the North, and he would often end up in the middle of nowhere. Ultimately, he ended up taking a job at a resort outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where he worked for a summer doing menial labor. And that gave him enough money and enough experience to figure out how to buy a train ticket to go further North, and he bought a ticket to New York. And so he shows up in New York, he's still just a kid really, and is sort of searching for his way.

He's in his late teens, he doesn't know anyone in the city. While there are many West Indian immigrants in Harlem at that time, the Bahamian community was quite small there, so he didn't have any natural context in that sense. And so he showed up, he was able to rent a room with some of his scratchings, but wasn't able to sort of sustain it. There were nights when he slept in pay toilets, because that was all he could afford to do. There were nights when he slept on rooftops, because he couldn't afford a place to stay. He didn't have any warm clothes, because this was a kid who had grown up in the Bahamas and then was in Miami.

So when winter hit, it was particularly tough for him. And so he survived by doing odd jobs. The primary job that he often did was work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. And so the way that he found work was often by, he'd pull out the New York Amsterdam News, the black newspaper in New York City, and look at the Help Wanted section. And then one day, he came across this ad that said, Actors Wanted, American Negro Theater.

And he said, you know, I've been a dishwasher, I've done all these other jobs, I'll try this. So Poiret came to the American Negro Theater, which was housed in the 135th Street Library in the heart of Harlem. And the person who answered the door was Frederick O'Neill when he knocked on it. And Frederick O'Neill was kind of this giant of black theater.

He was one of the founders of the American Negro Theater, just this absolutely intimidating figure. And he put Poiret through an audition and realized that he was a guy who had basically no experience as an actor, still spoke with kind of a singsong, West Indian accent. And as Poiret remembers it anyway, O'Neill kicked him out and said, why don't you go get a job as a dishwasher or something. And of course, because Sidney had worked as a dishwasher, you know, this sort of burned in his soul.

How could this guy say this to me? And so he resolved that he was going to become an actor, and you know, it was still sort of this quixotic idea for him at the time. But he also had that sort of code of personal discipline where he figured out how to do it. He went back, he did some more auditions, they needed more men because there were more women in the troupe than there were men, so they let him sort of stick around. He worked as like doing odd jobs for the theater so that they would continue to let him take the classes and become part of the organization. And he trained himself to speak in a more American way. He would imitate the voices on the radio. He would go back to his small room and he would hear the voice on the radio say, how do you do, gentlemen?

And he would go on to say, how do you do, gentlemen? He also had in the other jobs that he worked, he worked in a restaurant and he was a dishwasher. And he was trying to learn how to read, but he had just the basic rudiments of it by the time that he was arriving in Harlem in the 1940s. In one of the restaurants that he worked at, there was a waiter, an elderly Jewish man that he would later sort of credit as having this incredibly important influence on his life who took a shine to him and agreed to try to help him learn to read. So after they were done with their shifts, they would sit down together and the man would help him learn.

And for Poitier, this had an enormous effect. He would go on to become a voracious reader. He would absorb information. He was constantly reading. He was constantly entertained by ideas. And he was someone who was sort of only half literate, really, into his teenage years.

So this is, you know, here's just a story of one man's benevolence having a lasting effect on someone who would go on to have national and international influence. After this long apprenticeship with the American Negro Theater, where he basically learned how to be an actor, Poitier got his first break in the late 1940s. He was cast in Analukasta, which was a play that the American Negro Theater had adapted from a Polish play called Analukaska, and had turned it into kind of a minor hit.

And it started to even play on Broadway, and then there were these touring companies that went around the country. And Poitier got to join these touring companies. And that was sort of his baptism in the world of the black theater. And so he was acting alongside people like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, you know, people who have become lifelong friends. And he got all sorts of experiences, and, you know, got to see the United States as they traveled around, and was able to earn some money. But into the late 1940s, Poitier's career was very much piecemeal.

He had, you know, stage opportunity here, a bit part in a play here. The American Negro Theater was starting to fall apart by the end of the 1940s, because a lot of its actors were using it as a launching pad to get Broadway roles, and the American Negro Theater had imagined itself as a independent black theater that was there for the African American community, and so there was always this constant tension between uptown and downtown in that sense. And it was also the beginnings of the Red Scare. And a lot of the people in Poitier's milieu were, you know, part of that sort of leftist world. You know, Harlem was in many ways the center of radical political activity in those early years of the Cold War. In fact, the Communist Party moved its headquarters to Harlem in the early 1950s. And they established various organizations, sort of cultural organizations, that were sponsored by the Communist Party. Some of the acting jobs that they got were through this organization called the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, which kind of supplanted the American Negro Theater as the primary outlet for black theater talent. But it was an organization that was a communist-front organization.

It was funded by the Communist Party. So this was the political world that Poitier was negotiating, just as his Hollywood career was starting to take off. And we're listening to author Aram Guzzouziian tell the story of Sidney Poitier. Aram is a professor of history at the University of Memphis, which, again, is just an hour north of our home studios in Oxford, Mississippi. And by the way, we asked him about whether Poitier knew whether he was working for a front group of the Communist Party, and it was a no.

And we just wanted to clear that up, not trying to imply that Poitier knew he was working for a front group of the Communist Party. And by the way, what a life. What a piece of storytelling. He experiences the heart of segregation in Miami in the 1940s, and it's a ruthless heart. And he couldn't believe it. It shocked him.

He escaped to New York to live, well, wherever he could, sleeping on rooftops, in toilets. And then one man saves his life, really, and that's Frederick O'Neill. He doesn't give him a gold star for his crummy audition. He tells him he's no good. Just as Sidney's father and his mother, he has both the discipline, the resilience, and the perseverance to become the actor he'd always dreamed of.

But that rejection is important to Sidney. When we come back, more of the life story of Sidney Poitier here on Our American Stories. There's a lot happening these days, but I have just the thing to get you up to speed on what matters without taking too much of your time. The Seven from The Washington Post is a podcast that gives you the seven most important and interesting stories, and we always try to save room for something fun. You get it all in about seven minutes or less. I'm Hannah Jewell. I'll get you caught up with The Seven every weekday.

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That's KNIX.com. And we continue with our American stories and the story of Sidney Poitier, and we're talking with Aram Kudzusyan, who wrote the book Sidney Poitier, Man, Actor, Icon. Let's return to Aram and more of the life story of Sidney Poitier. Poitier got his first break in Hollywood in 1949 for a film that came out in 1950 called No Way Out. And No Way Out was at the very end of a cycle of movies in Hollywood that were known as message movies, movies that were designed to combat racial prejudice.

Gentleman's Agreement is probably the most famous of these movies starring Gregory Peck that was about antisemitism. And No Way Out was a film in which Poitier played a doctor, a young doctor, who had treated a white patient who died. And his brother was vengeful and racist and was sort of out to get Poitier as the doctor. And toward the end of this film, Poitier's character admits to committing a murder just so that there'll be an investigation and an autopsy into the body, which will ultimately diffuse this story. So he makes this incredible sacrifice as this character. And in a lot of ways, Poitier's Doctor in No Way Out sets the template for Poitier's entire career, basically his image.

And it's in many ways presenting a new black image on screen. There were blacks who'd been sort of sexual threats going back to movies like Birth of a Nation. And Poitier was not that at all. He played this very mannered, middle-class man who had a prim housewife. There were characters who were song and dance men, like Bill Robinson, for instance. And Poitier does not sing or dance, he's a dramatic actor.

There were characters who were sort of comic buffoons, like Stepin Fetchit. And Poitier's character was not that. Again, he was this character who breathed dignity. And he was not someone who was threatening. He wasn't violent.

In fact, he was sacrificial. So this film in the message movie cycle established a template and established an image for Poitier as this sort of good black man who sacrifices on behalf of society and often helps out his white co-stars. In a lot of ways, he became kind of like a white liberal's fantasy of what a black person should be like and a white liberal's construction of, if black people are like this, then how can we not integrate into society?

How can we not become a more racially harmonious society? So he became a political symbol in that sense. After No Way Out, Poitier does find film roles here and there, but he's still sort of struggling to squeak out an existence in Hollywood, even to the point where he opens a restaurant in Harlem called Ribs in the Rough, a ribs restaurant, simply as a backup plan in case acting doesn't work out. But then Poitier gets his big break with the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle, which is in the midst of this sort of youth-oriented films that are showing appealing rebels.

If you think of Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Poitier's character in Blackboard Jungle is a man named Gregory Miller, who's a teenager in a school in New York, and there's a bunch of rebellious boys who are in this classroom. And Poitier's character is electric in this role, in the sense that he just breathes cool. He exudes this cool style. And at first, he's very resistant to the new white teacher played by Glenn Ford. But the teacher recognizes in Poitier's character this incredible ability to be a leader, to sway the whole classroom, and he basically courts him to his side. Hey, Miller, come on, I want to talk to you a minute, Miller.

Man to man talk for a minute. You know, I've been looking up the records and you're a natural born leader. Yeah. Right? Yeah, you are. Those guys out there, they like you very much. Don't, don't be modest with me, Miller. You know that you're a little brighter, a little smarter than the rest of those guys. Me?

Yeah. And every class needs a leader. You could be that leader, Miller. What you do, they'll do.

You cooperate, they'll follow you. How about it, Miller? Sure, you think so?

That's some boy. Good. That's fine, Miller. Take it easy, man.

Sure, man. So by the end of the film, Poitier ends up on the side of the teacher against the more villainous white students who are against the teacher and want to knife the teacher at the end. So here's a character who ends up embodying Poitier's typical onscreen persona, the black man who helps the white man to negotiate through this difficult arc in the white person's career. But at the same time, he breeds such electricity into the role, he brings such charisma into the character of Gregory Miller that it becomes a role that vaults him into the next level of his career.

The film that really makes Sidney Poitier into a star, that gives him top billing on a marquee, is The Defiant Ones, a film that comes out in 1958. It stars him opposite Tony Curtis. They play prisoners, one white, one black, who are chained to each other. And they are able to escape from a prison truck, and it's the story of their relationship.

They hate each other at first, race divides them, they're each trying to scratch out some type of freedom but are chained to each other. And both characters earned Oscar nominations for their role in this film. And again, just like in Blackboard Jungle, what we saw with Poitier, with his character in this film, Noah Cullen, that he brings a lot of subtlety to the role, sort of a humanity to a character who could easily have become one-dimensional, and that's what makes it such a powerful film, and it's what makes it so appealing. At the same time, this is a film that also plays into the Poitier pattern of sacrifice. At the end of the film, the chain comes off the two of them, and they're still running away together, and they're on a train. At the very end of the film, Poitier is able to hop onto the train that's going to take him to freedom, and Tony Curtis' character just can't make it.

He's weak and wounded. So rather than ride off to freedom, Poitier's character jumps off the train and stays with his friend and cradles them at the very end. And there's a terrific story by James Baldwin about watching this film. The first time he watches the film, he watches it in a downtown New York theater.

Most of the patrons are white. And at the end of the film, when Poitier leaps off the train and stays with the white person, the audience weeps and cheers and applauds. And as Baldwin reads it, he says, you know, this is reassuring to them.

This is telling them that the black people are here for them, that we're not going to disrupt them. And he rolls his eyes to some degree at that. And that's actually what prompts him to go see the film for a second time in Harlem among a primarily black audience. Of course, the movie goes the same way. Poitier jumps off the train at the end, and this time the audience gets up and hoots and hollers and says, get back on the train, you fool. So by the early 60s, Poitier is certainly emerging as a significant movie star. He has appeared in Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess.

He was on Raisin in the Sun, which had a long Broadway run, and then was a successful film as well in which he had this incredible performance as Walter Lee Younger. He really defined the role in terms of, here's a young black man who's coming into his own and learning how to provide for his family and to show his dignity, even as he's facing an intensely racist society. And this is all, of course, occurring in the midst of the rising civil rights movement. You have the student sit-in movement of 1960 that spreads throughout the South, the Freedom Rides in 1961 that bring integrated buses, and these demonstrations that bring activists all throughout the Deep South.

In 1962, you have James Meredith integrating the University of Mississippi, which leads to a riot to try to prevent him from attending, and ultimately federal marshals to protect him. So there's kind of this early swelling momentum for the cause of African American civil rights. And Poitier is the only black actor who is obtaining leading roles in Hollywood films throughout this time. So he essentially is emerging as Hollywood's response to the civil rights movement. He is how Hollywood deals with race in the midst of the civil rights era, more or less through the character and icon of Sidney Poitier. And you've been listening to Aram Guzzuzzi and tell the story of Sidney Poitier. No way out was his way out in the end, and Richard Widmark played the part of the antagonist It was fascinating to listen to the account of one of America's great black novelists and writers, and that's James Baldwin, tell the story of seeing this movie in a white theater and a black theater and the very different responses. What was remarkable about Poitier was that he wasn't a song and dance man, the typical African American song and dance man. He wasn't the comic, the buffoon, nor was he threatening.

He was something new and something dangerous to everybody, something lovable to everybody too. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, we're talking about the life story of Sidney Poitier here on Our American Stories. I bet you're smart. Yeah, and you like to hold your own in the group chat. We can help you drop even more knowledge.

My name is Martine Powers, and I'm Elahe Isadi. We host a daily news podcast called Post Reports. Every weekday afternoon, Post Reports takes you inside an important and interesting story with the kind of reporting that you can only get from the Washington Post.

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That's K-N-I-X dot com. And we continue with our American stories and with Aram Goodsouzian, and he's the author of Sidney Poitier, Man, Actor, Icon, and go to your local bookstore and pick this up or order it through your bookstore or go wherever you get your books. Let's pick up now with Aram where he last left off. In 1963, he makes a film called Lilies of the Field. This is a low budget film. They only have two weeks to film the entire movie, and it basically revolves around Poitier's character, a man named Homer Smith, who's this traveling handyman in the American Southwest. And he comes across a group of nuns, German nuns, who basically asked him to build them a chapel. And he ends up doing it.

And he finds some kind of sort of self-worth in the story. It's English lesson time. I build a chapel. I build a chapel. You build a chapel. You build a chapel. Oh, we build a chapel. We build a chapel.

He built a chapel. Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.

Amen. But also, again, here's the sort of classic Poitier character, sort of divorced from any kind of connection to a black community, just on his own, the sort of character of such innate goodness that he ultimately builds a chapel for these nuns out of the goodness of his heart. And it is a very heartwarming story. It's a sweet, well-told story, but it becomes something of a phenomenon.

And part of it is its political timing. It comes out in the fall of 1963. This is in the aftermath of the March on Washington, which was in August of that year, the massive demonstrations for civil rights throughout the country in the aftermath of the violence in Birmingham. And so Poitier's character in that film kind of captures a certain mood, so to speak, to the point where this is the film that gets him the Oscar for Best Actor. He wins the Academy Award in the spring of 1964 for Lilies of the Field. The nominees for the best performance by an actor are Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, Rex Harrison in Cleopatra, Paul Newman in Her, Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. The winner is Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. And that creates new opportunities for Poitier, it creates new visibility, it also creates new complications because the civil rights movement as it continues to evolve is approaching something of a crossroads. You have the philosophy of black power emerging by 1966 and becoming more popular and it emphasizes black identity and black pride and a certain sense of disillusionment with the federal government, with white liberals, with sort of the mainstream themes of the civil rights era that Sidney Poitier seemed to embody. And in each of his films Poitier continues to play some version of the same kind of character that he's always played.

And each along the way he's breaking new barriers. In 1967 there's a poll that asks people, would you go see this film just knowing that this actor is in it? And it turns out that Sidney Poitier ranks as the most popular movie star in America based on this metric at the end of 1967.

And so there's a sense of sort of racial crisis bubbling in America over the course of the summer and into the fall of 1967. It's at that point that three Poitier movies come out in quick succession. To Serve with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. And each of these films in its way carries on the Sidney Poitier image, the Sidney Poitier icon. So in a lot of ways Poitier's character kind of seems to represent kind of like a balm on those wounds. It soothes people's racial anxieties that black people can still be their friend, can still be mannered, can still be helpful, can still be nonviolent, can still be Sidney Poitier.

And In the Heat of the Night, which comes out right after To Serve with Love, builds on that idea. Within this film, of course, is the famous so-called slap heard around the world. And where Poitier's character is questioning this white aristocratic gentleman and Poitier's line of questioning insults the man and he slaps Poitier. And Poitier's character slaps him right back. And this is kind of a watershed moment for many African American people, the viewers of the time, right? They've never been able to see this kind of black action, this kind of black resentment rage expressed on screen. But the larger pattern in the film is still Poitier working with whites, right? That aristocrat is kind of the outlier, he's the villain in the story. All three of these films, In the Heat of the Night, To Serve with Love, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, all top number one at the box office. And so Poitier is at this enormous peak of his start.

And then it kind of drops off a cliff. Of course, in April of 1968, that's when Martin Luther King is assassinated. And at the time, many people are seeing this as sort of the end of an era, right?

The philosophy of nonviolence has somewhat run its course, there's this deep sense of disillusion among many black Americans and rage, of course, as well. But what's also happening by the late 1960s is that you have more and more black critics shaped by black power who are increasingly and openly critical of Poitier. And the most significant of these criticisms comes from a playwright, a guy named Clifford Mason, writing in the New York Times toward the end of 1967. And the big headline in the New York Times that day was, Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So? And it's a brutal takedown of so many of Poitier's films, and it includes some really harsh language against Poitier. Critics are wondering, is Sidney Poitier obsolete?

Can he no longer really be a viable character because he continues to present this kind of image on screen in the early 70s? And it's right around that time that we're seeing a new type of black hero appear on screen in the blaxploitation movies, in Shaft and Superfly. And they're creating sort of an emotional resonance with a lot of black audiences at the time. They'd never really seen these kinds of characters on screen before. And so it's refreshing to many African-American audiences.

But Poitier feels a sting from this. In fact, he moves to the Bahamas at some point in the early 1970s for a few years, basically to just sort of get away from this sort of the political heat that has been established here. But he's also exceptionally resourceful, very intelligent, connections all through Hollywood. He remains the most powerful black man in Hollywood in the 1970s. And so he uses that leverage in some ways in ways that don't necessarily help his career, but help the larger plight of race on screen. So he does a trio of comedies, for instance, Uptown Saturday Night, A Piece of the Action, Let's Do It Again, that star Bill Cosby, and have Harry Belafonte in a few of them, Jimmy Walker. And these are really sort of feel-good movies that aren't in the blaxploitation tradition that are crossing over. They're exceptionally popular among black audiences, but they're also winning white audiences.

And Poitier is directing these films. And he's the one who's getting black people not just in front of the screens, but behind the cameras too. He's employing more black people in Hollywood that haven't really been employed before. But also as he was able to sort of get some distance, as he was able to tell his own story, as he became kind of a veteran in black Hollywood, a mentor to actors like Denzel Washington or Will Smith, to the point where he's winning a lifetime achievement Oscar in the early 2000s.

And he's able to sort of reflect back. He writes a couple of memoirs that tell the story of his life. So like anyone who's approaching past middle age and into their older years, he's able to look back with pride on his accomplishments, and also because the United States itself gets distanced from that tumultuous time. It's easier to appreciate the contributions that Sidney Poitier made in a way that might have been difficult for many Americans to see in the early 1970s, for instance.

So there is this more sort of longstanding appreciation of Poitier's career that we see. You know, with his recent passing, the tone was naturally celebratory because he had been a barrier breaker. And he'd had to negotiate through these difficult times and make difficult choices that would have been a burden on anyone.

And he'd managed it with much more grace and style and dignity than I think we have the right to expect. So it's 2003, and Barack Obama at this point is still very much an underdog candidate for the Senate. He's running in Illinois, of course, and his campaign manager is running these various focus groups.

And you know, the black candidates in Illinois political history had been able to appeal primarily to a black constituency, but hadn't been able to cross over. And his campaign manager is running this focus group, in particular with this group of white women who are wealthy on the North Shore of Chicago, and showing them images of the various candidates and what they think about him. And when they showed them the picture of Obama, they say, what does this make you think about? One of the women says, Sidney Poitier. And it's at that moment that the campaign manager, Jim Cauley, says, whoa, this is real.

Here's a guy with actual crossover appeal. And one more example of the ways in which Sidney Poitier has shaped the patterns of American life and the way that he has sort of appealed to the best in our nature. And a great job on the production by Greg Hengler, and a special thanks to Aram Gudsuzian for his book and his effort here, telling the story, sharing the story of Sidney Poitier. His book, Sidney Poitier, man, actor, icon, and well, buy the book.

And if it's not there, order it from your local bookstore or wherever you get your books. The Defiant Ones, if you've never seen it, see it. It gets him his first Oscar nomination, along with the great Tony Curtis. Lilies of the Field gets him his first Oscar. And in 1967, my goodness, to serve with love in the heat of the night, guess who's coming to dinner?

Watch all three films with your family. And what Poitier had to face? The Black Power movement didn't like him, and he was a threat and a challenge to many white races. And he held that line and taught us all how to live and to live with grace. In the end, Aram was right.

He has appealed through his work to the best in our nature. The story of Sidney Poitier, here on Our American Stories. A collision between a Chinese jet and an American spy plane.

He came and rammed into our left wing. With relations increasingly strained, what are the chances of things spinning out of control? The Western world was asleep.

I'm Gordon Carrera. I'll be exploring the friction in this most important of relationships and asking, has the West taken its eye off the ball? You cannot ignore China. On BBC Radio 4, this is Shadow War, China and the West.

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