The Excellence to Overcome Prejudice: Sidney Poitier, American Hero

The release of the film Black Panther has been heralded as a great cultural shift. It shows that a movie made by black filmmakers with a black hero can dominate at the box office and provides a role model for young men of color when the other heroes on the big screen were white.

However, this attempt to cast this particular film in this light is a bit shortsighted. While this may be a great film, there is a need to look at the Hollywood of the past to see examples of a black man dominating the box office.

February 20th marked the 91st birthday of one of the finest actors of all time: Sir Sidney Poitier. This luminary of stage and screen is a real hero at a time in which those heroes we see on the screen are make believe.

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 was nominated for Best Actor in 1959 for The Defiant Ones which is particularly amazing because this was years before people of his race were truly equal in the eyes of the law.

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 the even the prejudiced whites of his day could not ignore.

One of his best roles came in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which addressed the issue of race explicitly with interracial marriage. Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice in a tour de force performance. He is engaged to a white girl from a liberal California family. Needless to say, when the race issue hit home, they were not as liberal as their political views would have one believe. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn costar as the liberal parents who are skeptical of the relationship, judging him on the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. Tracy’s character even looks into Prentice’s background not believing that he was who he says he was.

Poitier gives what may be his best performance. He plays a man almost above reproach thus magnifying the irrationality that is racism. Over the course of the film the audience sees the parents shift from being prejudiced to being respectful of Prentice as a man--not a man of a different race--but a human being. Poitier commanded respect with his confidence, honesty, and quality character. While today’s films should show blacks as having better standing in society, Poitier’s films dealt with the racism common to the period in which they were made.

He is a real hero who played so many sorts of characters. He can play a laborer as well as a doctor. He played a prisoner as well as detective. Today we can appreciate the quality of his work and contemplate the difficulties he overcame. He did so while making it seem effortless on the screen. The quality of his work is a joy to behold, but the context of his day makes the feat even greater.

Today, there is a belief that we need more films helmed by people of color and we need superheroes who look like each minority. The superhero genre is good for giving us an escape from reality, but maybe we should consider the heroism of seemingly everyday characters--those to whom we can actually relate. Perhaps we can see the heroic in roles that seem rather common.

Poitier showed that a fictional superhero was not what we needed and may not be what we need today. We needed a great man to show us what excellence was in a way that transcended race. He took on roles that dealt with racism at a time in which the racism was not just on the screen, but a common view of society. 

He showed generations of whites that greatness is not dependent on skin color and that their prejudices were illogical. He showed blacks that they could be just as successful as their white counterparts despite the hurdles they would have to overcome.

Sidney Poitier is a national treasure and an example of a cultural figure who is worthy of emulation. The hurdles he faced off screen and seen in his performances on screen are more relatable to real people than superheroes with mystical powers to help them along. A hero in real life is someone who does great things in the face of adversity and helps make society a better place for all people. He did not have superpowers, but showed that greatness can overcome prejudice on screen and off.