When Sidney Poitier Picked Up the Gun

When Sidney Poitier Picked Up the Gun

Notes on a couple of native sons.

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I was 15 in the summer of 1968, when it seemed everybody my age and older was out in the streets. Instead, I hunkered down and let the world’s rage, turbulence, and intensity come to me. I absorbed it all. And got so used to my hopes being dashed by the events of that summer that I expected disappointment each day as if it were a regular meal.

One of those disappointments came from an unexpected source: a cover story in the now-defunct Look magazine that June announcing itself with these five words: “Sidney Poitier by James Baldwin.” Poitier was a year removed from a trifecta of major hits—To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that affirmed his unprecedented stature as a Black movie star big enough to draw millions of dollars and viewers on his name alone. At the same time, Poitier was also drawing increasing criticism that his movie image was too accommodating to whites to reflect the increasing militancy in the Black community—especially in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination three months earlier. I wanted to hear more from Poitier on this and other matters, and who better to get it out of him than the Black writer who was himself under increasing scrutiny from militant writers and yet remained an influential and respected voice and, as with Poitier, achieved a level of fame that transcended racial barriers?

But the article wasn’t an interview with Poitier so much as an essay about how well Baldwin knew Poitier and how he generally felt about Poitier’s work. My younger self believed the piece, on its surface, to be insufficiently engaged with the sociopolitical urgencies of the moment and, thus, seeming to indicate that the militants had a point about both Poitier and Baldwin; that history’s headlong momentum was already transforming them from heroes of the civil rights era into anachronisms. Put plainly, the article seemed, on its surface, more like something that belonged in a gushy fan magazine than a “serious” engagement with the meaning of Poitier’s success and what it meant for the future of what was now being commonly referred to as “Black America.”

Sir Sidney Poitier died last week at age 94, and the subsequent expression of grief and gratitude throughout America and the world is enough to suggest that his heroism and respect outlasted any misgivings toward his commitment and legacy. Baldwin’s reputation has likewise ascended to the point where he has since the turn of this century inspired waves of Black activists, writers, filmmakers, and rap artists. It thus occurred to me that I should take another look at that Look magazine piece, assuming I could find it.

I did find it, in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, a grab bag of Baldwin’s piece work, edited by the late Randall Kenan and published in 2010, 23 years after Baldwin’s death. The Poitier essay remains as impressionistic as I remembered it; it isn’t as deep or as fully realized as Baldwin’s best work. But in hindsight it turns out to be more substantive and prescient than my 15-year-old self was willing, or ready, to acknowledge.

First off, it acknowledges, early on, suspicions from within the Black community back in the mid-to-late 1960s that Poitier’s success was putting him at a far remove from his roots: “‘Know from whence you came,’ Sidney once said to me, and Sidney, his detractors to the contrary, does know whence he came. But it can become very difficult to remain in touch with all that nourishes you when you have arrived at Sidney’s eminence and are in the interesting, delicate, and terrifying position of being part of a system that you know you have to change.”

I also think I was wrong to expect Baldwin, more essayist than reporter, more preacher than investigator, to deliver his version of a celebrity profile. I now see Baldwin’s approach to Poitier’s body of work and impact on his audiences as presaging his post-’60s approach to the essay, which was far looser, more improvisatory and took more risks in the form than he did in Notes of a Native Son or Nobody Knows My Name. Most of all, I can now see a direct line connecting his cerebral approach to Poitier’s image in 1968 to The Devil Finds Work, his intensely subjective and groundbreaking 1976 book-length account of growing up with the movies and looking for racial reality in the factory of dreams. In these two works, eight years apart, I now see that Baldwin understood that as our different selves watch films, the films are somehow staring back. And that with each set of new eyes, we’re not always sure of what they’re registering.

Let me go back, as I often have over the previous 48 hours, to In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 murder mystery set in the Deep South that won Oscars for almost everybody involved except director Norman Jewison and Poitier—who wasn’t even nominated for what I still believe to be his finest purely cinematic performance, as Virgil Tibbs, the cool, circumspect Black police detective dragooned into helping the bullying, belligerent small-town police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve the murder of a prominent Northern businessman. When the movie came up for discussion in the wake of Poitier’s passing, most people remembered the galvanic moment when an imperious white plantation owner (Larry Gates) slaps Tibbs’s face for interrogating him, whereupon Tibbs slaps back with equal force, creating a moment of tension that froze everybody who witnessed it, on-screen and off.

Thirty years later, I’d seen the film at an film festival’s anniversary screening and found myself frozen in place by a moment I didn’t remember from the first time I’d seen the movie, but which created within me a similar frisson: It came when Poitier’s Tibbs has determined the identity of the murderer and, for the second time in the movie, is confronted by a surly mob of redneck thugs prepared to thrash the uppity Negro detective with chains and lead pipes. A shoot-out ensues between the murderer and one of the thugs; the latter falls dead after wounding the former. At which point, with police sirens wailing, Tibbs picks up one of the two pistols and points it at the remaining, perplexed pack of would-be attackers.

He had a gun? I said to myself. How did I miss that the first time? A Black man holding off a white mob with a pistol? That seemed almost as unprecedented and unexpected as Tibbs’s refusal to turn the other cheek. I was so uncertain of this that I called the archivist responsible for restoring the original print for its reshowing. He never called back, but a DVD released not long afterward confirmed what I’d seen, or, more to the point, missed the first time.

From then on, I saw both the movie, and Poitier, with even greater appreciation. What did it take, I wondered, for Poitier’s Tibbs to be allowed to do all the things in this movie that his white counterparts did as a matter of course? What alloy of patience and poise had Poitier managed to fashion over what was already a celebrated career to bring off moments like these that couldn’t have been imagined or allowed in a Hollywood movie not long before? And, once again: How did I not see it first time around?

The same way, I now suppose, I didn’t appreciate what James Baldwin was getting at in the summer of my teenage discontent when, instead of digging up grist on his longtime friend, he could see a wider context of what Poitier was allowed to do with his stardom as opposed to what he hoped to do. When Poitier put those goons at bay in In the Heat of the Night, I now think, he was announcing that things weren’t going to be as they once were in the movies, for him, for me, for white people, for everyone. As much as you’d like to shake people’s lapels about how much things still need to change, Baldwin and Poitier remain in memory, and for all time, as reminders of how change has always been possible.

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