Summer Under the Stars | Sidney Poitier

13 08 2009

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Tomorrow morning beginning at 6am, EST, Turner Classic Movies will spotlight Oscar-winner and cinematic trailblazer Sidney Poitier with a day of his best films in their “Summer Under the Stars” series. Check out the re-imagined poster for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

To understand Poitier’s cinematic contribution is to almost imagine movie apartheid. Before 1950, the only time you saw Black men on screen, they were usually featured in menial roles (butler, laborer, etc . . . ) and were NEVER featured as the lead in film. Okay, there were several notable exceptions, “The Emperor Jones,” “Intruder in the Dust” and a plethora of “race movies” made by Oscar Micheaux or all-Black westerns with Herb Jeffries.

But 1950’s “No Way Out” was thunderous shot across the bow launching the career of the Bahamian-born native of Cat Island, Poitier who would become the first Black actor to be a leading man in major studio productions. It’s not that Poitier was the leading man, but his characters were far from subservient usually portraying him heroically which was the antithesis of how they had seen in major studio films. Poitier’s performances consciously defied racial stereotyping and gave a new dramatic credibility for Black actors to mainstream film audiences in the Western world.

Early in his career, he made one film as year as studios struggled with what to do with the handsome, passionate and talented star. After garnering good reviews and a BAFTA nomination in 1957 for “Edge of the City,” Poitier ripped off a series of amazing performance seemingly one after another during his career “golden period.” He was absolutely riveting in “The Defiant Ones,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Paris Blues,” “Lillies of the Field, ” (which brought him his first Oscar) and “A Patch of Blue.” He became the number one movie star in Hollywood when he starred in three classic films in 1967, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night.” While Poitier received zero nominations both of his co-stars, Spencer Tracy and Rod Steiger were nominated for Best Actor with Steiger taking home the top prize.


A Clip from “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”

While Poitier came along during the pre-Civil Rights era, the irony of his career was that at a time when rose to prominence a new generation of Black moviegoers thought that he was becoming an Uncle Tom and a sell-out because to them he represented “the establishment.” Searching for more control and wanting to tell different stories, Poitier made his directorial debut with the western, “Buck and the Preacher.” Also during this period, he teamed with his friend Bill Cosby for three classic 1970s comedies, “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “A Piece of the Action.”

But Poitier was not finished making history. In 1980, he directed Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in “Stir Crazy” becoming the first Black director to helm a $100 million movie. Along the way he broke down barriers for other leading men including James Earl Jones, Richard Roundtree, Calvin Lockhart, Howard Rollins, Jr. and Denzel Washington. In a career highlight, Poitier and his heir apparent, Washington had the good fortune to receive their Oscars on the same night (his was honorary; Washington won Best Actor for “Training Day”).

Here is a schedule of Poitier’s film on TCM from “Summer Under the Stars.”

6:00 AM – The Long Ships (1964)
8:30 AM – Paris Blues (1961)
10:30 AM – Pressure Point (1962)
12:00 PM – Something Of Value (1957)
2:00 PM – Patch Of Blue, A (1965)
4:00 PM – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
6:00 PM – To Sir, With Love (1967)
8:00 PM – Raisin in the Sun, A (1961)
10:15 PM – Lilies of the Field (1963)
12:00 AM – Buck and the Preacher (1972)
2:00 AM – Edge of the City (1957)
4:00 AM – Brother John (1971)

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