While the civil rights movements of the 1960s led to legal equality of minorities, there was still resistance to their inclusion. Hollywood also had to undergo a transition in the light of these changes. Before the 1960s, most people of color represented on the silver screen were mere stereotypes of the obsequious station many of these individuals could manage. Fortunately, right around the time these changes were happening in the real world, the film world had opportunities to shine a light on these changes via the talented work of Sidney Poitier. With a black man cast in such roles as detectives and physicians, no longer were these people of color relegated to portray “the help” in the movies. Poitier’s groundbreaking acting helped pave the way for many others, even if the film industry hasn’t changed as much as people had hoped it would. This week’s two films highlight some game-changing performances by Sidney Poitier.
In the Heat of the Night
Length: 109 minutes / 1.82 hours
Sidney Poitier earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in The Defiant Ones (1958). This nomination was the first hint of equality in Hollywood, as his co-star, Tony Curtis, was also nominated for the award. Fortunately, neither of them won, since that could have indicated who was better: black or white. Five years later, Poitier would win his one and only Oscar for his leading role in Lilies of the Field (1963). This achievement broke the barrier for the award, which had been held by white men for over 30 years. Unfortunately, the streak of white men winning the Oscar for Best Actor would continue for another three decades, when Denzel Washington would eventually win for Training Day (2001). Clearly, the struggle for these actors of color to find significant roles to showcase their talent has been an ongoing challenge and one that Hollywood seems unlikely and unwilling to change.
The murder of a Chicago businessman in Sparta, Mississippi leads the police chief, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) to suspect anyone in the town who seems out of place. With no suspicious characters sighted near the scene of the crime, the local police eventually find Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) loitering at the train station. As the only suspect, Gillespie tries to get Tibbs to confess, only to learn that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia. While Tibbs just wants to leave, obviously not being welcomed by the white population of the town, his boss tells him to assist with the investigation. This request is then emphasized by the widow of the deceased, who recognizes Tibbs’ competence when compared to the biased local police force. Despite the hurdles Tibbs has to endure, he eventually solves the crime and earns Gillespie’s respect in the process.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Length: 108 minutes / 1.80 hours
Integration was one of the problems addressed by the civil rights movement. Equality was a good place to start, but without these individuals being treated as equals in an integrated society, the whole point of the movement was lost. In one of his breakout roles, Sidney Poitier portrayed a student in a mixed-race school in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), highlighting the negative (and erroneous) accusations that often befell black people based on racial bias. Unfortunately, racial bias isn’t limited to the academic arena. One of the most polarizing topics for many decades has been that of interracial marriage. If anything, the acceptance of interracial marriages should be the epitome of equality and integration. Regarding Hollywood’s portrayal of this potentially hot-button topic, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) is the epitome of interracial marriage films.
Although the traditionally liberal parents of Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton) should have no ideological qualms with their daughter marrying John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), something about an upper-class white woman marrying a black man doesn’t sit well with them. While Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) would want more time to talk to their daughter about this upcoming marriage, they are surprised with not only the fiancé but his parents as well. All three of them are coming over to the Draytons’ house for dinner as a chance for the two families to get to know each other. The time to question the engaged couple’s thought process is short, as John is traveling from San Francisco to Europe via New York immediately after dinner, and Joanna has decided to go with him for their wedding ceremony in Geneva. Will everyone be accepting of this unusual arrangement?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 perfect Sidney Poitier performances
Bacon #: 2 (Sneakers / David Strathairn -> The River Wild / Kevin Bacon)