Sidney Poitier-exploring the heart of justice through film and stage

Sidney Poitier had one of the most successful acting careers in history, winning numerous more awards, but more importantly appearing in productions that explored issues of race, discrimination, human rights, and justice.

a stone sidewalk with overlying words-responsibility, society, freedom, liberty

This is one of those post updates I would rather not need to write. On January 6, 2022, acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier died at age 94 in his parents’ native country the Bahamas.

Although movie historians insist on recognizing him as the first Black Man to win the Best Actor Academy Award, I believe he is best remembered as a person who overcame incredible personal challenges to achieve a successful career that not only entertained but challenged the status quo and taught difficult lessons about human relationships, especially the scourge of racism.

Mr. Poitier twice portrayed physicians in movies. The first, in 1950, which was also his film debut, was in No Way Out, where as a black physician he treated a bigoted white patient. Even now, it is not unusual for a black physician to encounter rascism in white patients; in 1950 it was essentially the norm.

The next film is better known, possibly because he acted opposite two of the most successful actors of that time. In 1967 Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy played a married couple whose white daughter was engaged to a young black physician, played by Sidney Poitier. The movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was nominated for the Best Movie Academy Award and won for Best Story and Screenplay.

The film was one of the few films of the time to depict an interracial marriage in a positive light, as interracial marriage historically had been illegal in most states of the United States. It was still illegal in 17 states—mostly Southern states—until June 12, 1967, six months before the film was released. Roughly two weeks after Tracy filmed his final scene (and two days after his death), anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. (Wikipedia)

The following is taken from my original post about Mr. Poitier.

Lilies of the Field

Although his acting ability had already won critical acclaim, a young actor made movie history in 1963 in a film based on this Bible text. In Lilies of the Field , he portrayed an itinerant handyman who meets a group of German-speaking nuns living in rural Arizona. After performing a small repair on a roof for them, he naturally asks to be paid. To which the Mother Superior replies,

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

Matthew 6:28,29 ESV

In case you’re not familiar with the reference, it’s from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; here is the full context.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. (In the Old Testament, Solomon was a King, who was the richest man in the world at that time.)

 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 

 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Matthew 6, ESV

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

That actor went on to have one of the most successful acting careers in history, winning numerous more awards, but more importantly appearing in productions that explored issues of race, discrimination, human rights, and justice.

Sidney Poitier, now 93 years old, won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. He was the first black man to win the best actor award, and the second black person to win any Academy award. ( Hattie McDaniel won Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, making her the first black person to be nominated for and receive an Oscar. In June 2020 HBO planned to add “historical context” to the streaming version of the movie.)

He went on to win the Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama, the first Black person to win in that in that award program. He later won the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award in 1982.

In a post on the website The New Lyceum, Joey Barretta wrote this about the actor.

Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act was passed and a year prior to the Voting Rights Act. He rose to be a star at a time in which racism was common and his career began before segregation was abolished. This man is a true hero, albeit one who played some compelling fictional characters setting an example for the fallacy that is racism. By portraying decent men, he set an example of excellence in character that even the prejudiced whites of his day could not ignore.

J. Baretta, March 5, 2018
Some of Mr. Poitier’s other works which delved into social issues include
  • Cry, the Beloved Country-based on the novel about apartheid in South Africa
  • To Sir, With Love-social and racial tensions in an inner city school
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – interracial marriage
  • A Patch of Blue and The Defiant Ones -interracial friendships
  • In the Heat of the Night and They Call Me Mister Tibbs!– racial bias among law enforcement professionals
  • Separate but Equal– portrayal of Thurgood Marshall, future Supreme Court Justice
  • Mandela and deKlerk-portrayal of Nelson Mandela, future President of South Africa
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I’d love for you to read the original post so just follow this link.

How Lilies of the Field challenged the fallacy of racism

That actor went on to have one of the most successful acting careers in history, winning numerous more awards, but more importantly appearing in productions that explored issues of race, discrimination, human rights, and justice.

exploring the HEART of life through literature and media

I’ll hope you’ll watch Lilies of the Field if you’ve never seen it before. And also watch some of Mr. Poitier’s other films, which add revealing context to the social justice issues our country is confronting and correcting in the 21st century. Check out this article for some suggestions .

I appreciate all of you who are following Watercress Words, and if you aren’t I invite you to join the wonderful people who are. You can meet some of them in the sidebar, where you can click on their image and visit their blogs. Use the form to get an email notification of new posts. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything else from me.

Dr Aletha

I also referenced the Loving vs Virginia Supreme Court case in a post I’d like for you to read also.

black and white person's' hands raised

Say Goodbye for Now- a book review

Dr. Lucy lives alone except for the menagerie of injured animals she has doctored back to life. She likes her life the way it is, until she opens her home to three unexpected and unlikely guests.

Author: Aletha Cress Oglesby, M.D.

As a family physician, I explore the HEART of HEALTH in my work, recreation, community, and through writing. My blog, Watercress Words, informs and inspires us to live in health. I believe we can turn our health challenges into healthy opportunities. When we do, we can share the HEART of health with our families, communities, and the world. Come explore and share with me.

3 thoughts on “Sidney Poitier-exploring the heart of justice through film and stage”

  1. I was saddened to learn that my fellow Bahamian took his last breath. However, that is expected at the age of 94 even though some live longer. I did not know Lillies of the Field had anything to do with the Bible verse. Sidney Poitier will be remembered for his impact as an actor because of the powerful messages in the roles he chose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Literature and media make frequent use of phrases from the Bible. One of my favorites is the use of “pearls before swine” as the name of a popular comic strip. I agree that his roles spoke powerful messages, as does the fact that he chose them. Thanks for visiting Yvonne.

      Like

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