The elegance, the poise, the steely spine — but, oh, the face — when I think of Sidney Poitier, I first think of how beautiful he was and the sheer physical perfection of the man. He had the kind of old-fashioned Hollywood beauty and glamour that made the movies and made audiences dream and desire, turning them into repeat customers. There was much more to Poitier, yes, and he will be rightly remembered as a towering figure in the civil rights movement, one that has always been fought on the screen and not only in the streets and courts. But we should also honor and be grateful for his beauty, what it meant and what it did.
Physical beauty has its obvious attractions, but it can be a powerful weapon, too. That’s one reason Jim Crow Hollywood had such profound difficulty with Black beauty, which threatened the racist order that the industry upheld, reproduced and eagerly helped legitimize for its audiences. It’s also why Walter White, the head of the N.A.A.C.P., said in the 1940s that Lena Horne would be an “interesting weapon” against Hollywood racism. The industry ignored and marginalized Black performers, relegating them to the margins of the frame, where they often wore servant costumes and spoke in insulting dialect if they even said anything. Sometimes their names weren’t in the credits; at times their musical numbers were edited out.
The most instructive racist tell is that the industry’s self-censoring Production Code banned sexual relations between Black and white performers — not all people of color, just Black. Hollywood banned what the Code called miscegenation until 1957. At that point, Poitier had been acting in movies for a decade. He had made some intriguing films, and his name was being featured more prominently in the advertising. The next year, though, he catapulted to another level with the release of “The Defiant Ones,” about two escaped prisoners who are chained together and, while on the run, grow to care for each other. Directed by Stanley Kramer, it is a prime example of liberal white Hollywood at its most sincere and self-congratulatory.
However hokey, exasperating and contradictory “The Defiant Ones” is, there is also no denying the charms and charisma of its two very handsome and exceedingly fit leads. Poitier wasn’t thrilled when Tony Curtis, who was trying to escape his pretty-boy image, was cast as the other prisoner. But it was apparently Curtis who asked that the two men share top billing, even though contractually only Curtis had that privilege. This immeasurably elevated Poitier’s stature, as did the movie’s great box-office success, making him a bona fide star. I have to think that the jaw-dropping lollapalooza of a poster for “The Defiant Ones” also had something to do with both its success and Poitier’s transformation into a matinee idol.
The poster is drawn and vaguely reminiscent of the work of the painter George Bellows with a touch of Tom of Finland. It shows two heavily muscled prisoners facing each other while still chained, snarling and bare-chested. The two figures don’t look much like the performers that they’re meant to represent; instead, they look like bodybuilders who, after mainlining steroids to bulk up, have lost their minds and found themselves in scalding water. The poster emphasizes their antagonism, which may have appealed to some high-minded American audiences. Mostly and unambiguously, the poster was doing what film posters often did: It was selling sex through two semi-naked hotties who were definitely going to get down somehow.
This was different from the grotesquely racist images of brutish Black masculinity that the movies had historically trafficked in à la “The Birth of a Nation.” Here were two men, Black and white, chained together and forced into a fateful union. In the poster the Poitier figure is positioned slightly higher than the Curtis one and has one hand on the chain, as if to pull the other man closer. This gesture may have been another white liberal appeal, but in one sense it also represents Poitier’s historic position as a crossover star, someone who could take up equal space onscreen alongside white performers, including in friendships, as in the lovely “Paris Blues” (1961), in which his and Paul Newman’s jazz musicians share a palpably warm camaraderie.
In time, Poitier was also cast as the romantic lead alongside white actresses, though it was complicated. In “A Patch of Blue” (1965), his character becomes involved with a blind woman, and in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), he plays a caricature of perfection who gently rocks the world of his young white fiancée’s parents. Hollywood had understood and profited from Poitier’s magnetism, and it wanted to continue to exploit it yet also wanted him restrained, polite, sexless. It couldn’t deal with his full humanity. One of the few times that he’d played a rounded character, one who was desiring and desirable was in “Paris Blues,” in which his character has a romance with Diahann Carroll. (The story originally featured an interracial affair.)
In 1967, The New York Times published a profile of Poitier with the headline “He Doesn’t Want to Be Sexless Sidney.” It’s a sobering, tough read. He’d found success, certainly, but he was frustrated, noting that he’d never worked onscreen in a “man-woman relationship that was not symbolic.” He wasn’t interested in “a romantic interlude” with a white woman. He wanted to work with Black actresses. He wanted to put Black women on a pedestal. He wanted to give his daughters “a sense of self” and “the concept of beauty” that TV commercials didn’t provide them. He wanted to make the movies he wanted to make. From then on, he said, “I will continue to be a hero, but I won’t be a neuter,” a purposeful, profound declaration of independence.
Two years later, Poitier founded his own production company, First Artists, with Newman and Barbra Streisand. In 1972, he made his directorial debut with the western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he played a former Union soldier, Buck, who leads Black wagon trains from Louisiana to Kansas. Ruby Dee played his wife, and Harry Belafonte was Preacher. Together they ride and rob and fight to shepherd Black families to safety. It’s a wonderful, loose, galvanizing film, the start of a directing career that included hits like “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again.” He made the movies he had sought to make.
In his 1967 interview, he said that “I have not made my peace with the times — they are still out of kilter — but I have made my peace with myself.” The times remained out of kilter, even as Poitier kept rising above them.