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Thursday, April 11, 2024

April 11, 2024: I Am AmericanStudying Sidney Poitier: Two 1967 Classics

[This coming weekend marks the 60th anniversary of Sidney Poitier becoming the first Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Poitier performances, leading up to a special post on a handful of 21C actors carrying his legacy forward!]

On standout speeches and sweet sendoffs in Poitier’s pair of 1967 releases.

By 1967 Sidney Poitier had starred in 24 films, including the 1963 release that won him the Academy Award 60 years ago this week (and on which I’ll focus in tomorrow’s post); in early 1967 he would star in another, the English educational drama To Sir, with Love. Which is to say, he was by this time already very well-established, if not indeed America’s most beloved screen actor. But having said all of that, I would still make the case that it was his second and third 1967 releases which hold up the best among all of Poitier’s films, and which not coincidentally happen to comprise (at the time and ever since) two of the most powerful depictions of race in America ever put on the silver screen: the police procedural In the Heat of the Night, which co-starred Rod Steiger and debuted in August 1967; and the domestic melodrama (with plenty of comic moments) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, which co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (in his final performance, as he passed away in June) and debuted in December 1967.

While Poitier’s character is far more central to Heat than to Guess (where for much of the film he takes an understandable backseat to the powerhouse couple of Hepburn and Tracy), both films offer him the chance to deliver standout, stirring speeches about race in America (among other topics). In Heat those speeches tend to be brief, to the point, and righteously enraged, as in the film’s two most famous moments: “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” and the slap heard ‘round the world. In Guess Poitier’s most extended speech and scene is far more slow-building, emotionally nuanced, and multilayered: a frustrated yet loving conversation with his father (the great character actor Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) about their respective generations and perspectives. But what all these speeches and scenes share is a profound degree of emotional truth, the authentic humanity that Poitier brought to every performance and that makes both of these characters far more than just statements about race or civil rights (although they are both that as well).

Although full of more fraught and painful moments, both of these films end on sweet notes, and interestingly ones that are given to Poitier’s white male co-stars (while they are addressed to his characters). Spencer Tracy’s long final monologue in Guess is justifiably famous, not least because it is clearly addressed to his actual romantic partner Hepburn (hence her very real tears throughout) as well as to the characters by Poitier and his fiancĂ© (Tracy’s character’s daughter). Rob Steiger’s final line in Heat is as brief and to the point as Poitier’s explosions earlier in the film, but it is no less moving than Tracy’s monologue (and just as important to the film’s arc and themes), and it elicits one of Poitier’s most beautiful smiles in all his film performances. And while both of these endings are performed by other actors, I would argue that both moments have been created largely (if not, in Heat at least, entirely) by the presence and influence of Poitier’s characters, and specifically by that combination of emotional humanity and civic inspiration about which I wrote above.

Last Poitier post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Poitier films you’d highlight?

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