At the age of 12, he watched his first cowboy movie and declared to his sister that he wanted to go to Hollywood to be a cowboy, believing that cattle ranches and the “wild west” were, in fact, in Los Angeles. By the age of 15, he was living in Florida, and at 16 left for New York, the furthest he could travel from Florida on his meager income from washing dishes. At 18, an advert calling for actors by the American Negro Theater (ANT), led to the brutal realization that he could not read, nor act, and was summarily rejected. He set out on a quest for self-improvement: first learning how to read.
Poitier was admitted into an ANT acting class, but flunked and became the janitor. His first break came when Harry Belafonte couldn’t accept a role and the shortage of African-American actors forced the company to choose Poitier.
In his memoir, Poitier raises issues of race and color in the 1950s and 1960s. Examples of racial prejudice and discrimination serve to highlight his philosophy that “boundaries were emotional and physical, but they didn’t confine the spirit.” He considered himself lucky to have survived the many encounters with risky experiences and near death incidences, where his “struggle for survival was no more than a patchwork of trial-and-error.”
In 1964, he was the first African-American (male or female) to win an Oscar for Best Actor. He portrayed Homer Smith, a Baptist traveling handyman, in Lilies of the Field. The timeless movie, regarded as “perhaps the most extraordinary story of courage, conflict, and devotion ever filmed” depicted Catholic nuns who hire Smith to help them construct a chapel.
The year 1968 was a turning point, not only in Poitier’s life, but also in the lives of Americans. It was “a time of incredible conflict and contrast.” It was the year when both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and the clashes over Vietnam spurred dissent by the American nation with its government. It was also a year of professional acclaim for Poitier—in which he worked on three major movies: To Sir, with Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
It was also a time when he received a great deal of criticism from both a black and white perspective. He was criticized for acting in “roles that were non-threatening to white audiences”—these included playing a well-spoken intelligent, kind and courageous teacher in To Sir, with Love; an admirable police detective in the classic, In the Heat of the Night; and a charming doctor in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? And all three movies challenged the cultural stereotypes of African-American men—and all were controversial in their dealing with black and white, and male and female, and older and younger, and subordinate and authoritarian relationships.
In times of heightened criticism, he retained not only his sense of survival, but also his dignity and integrity. “People aren’t about being black or white. Black or white in the face of real issues are more cosmetics,” he writes. The whole time, it was his belief that “you are a child of the universe; you have a right to be here” that helped him maintain his faith in his own worth.
In his memoir, Poitier sets out his strong belief in his own destiny. Writing in his 70s, he documents his core values, such as integrity, commitment, faith, forgiveness, tolerance, and inner strength. Written from the heart, or as Poitier says, “without undue emphasis or understatement” his memoir is not so much about his life, but of a spiritual journey and of life itself.
Photograph: Sidney Poitier from all posters.com (top)