For African-American baby boomers like me, Sidney Poitier was our father

It is seldom said but he was the last of a great post-war generation of actors: Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster: American actors who brought a muscular vulnerability to the screen and relegated Bogart, Grant and James Stewart.

In No Way Out, Poitier starred as a doctor treating a white bigot, played by Richard Widmark (the two actors later became friends). There Poitier was, the beautiful shock of his deep black skin, his rich voice. And the fact that he was not singing and dancing. (Poitier was tone deaf so the singing was not possible any way!).  

He went on to play a member of a chain gang in The Defiant Ones (1958), chained to Tony Curtis. At a time when President Eisenhower was forced to federalise the National Guard so that little African-American children in the south could go to school in peace, no one could avoid the metaphorical chaining of Poitier and Curtis. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and what my dad knew was that what Poitier was doing on the screen was the truth, even though he himself had not lived it.

For my generation of African-American Baby Boomers, Poitier like Martin Luther King was quite simply our father. And because he was our father, like all fathers, he let us down. Because Poitier was good in a time when we wanted to be bad: bad against the racial segregation; bad against the Vietnam War; bad against the preachers and teachers who turned the other cheek; bad against being good. 

Eventually he DID win the Best Actor Oscar, the first man of African descent to do so, by playing a handyman who helps a bunch of white nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963). Of course they had to be foreign nuns; to have been American would have taken things too far back then. Poitier knew this. He knew that, when he accepted the Oscar, the prize might be a trap that ensnared him in a universe of the eternal good guy.

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