At a time when Black actors were forced into submissive or inarticulate roles, the actor showed strength moving through hostile white spaces with dignity

Upon the announcement of Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier’s death, I sent out a tweet that featured my favorite photo of him. The photo in question shows a shirtless Poitier, wearing dark sunglasses like Miles Davis on the cover of ‘Round About Midnight, playing the saxophone alongside jazz man Sonny Stitt, while standing in the street, surrounded by a community of appreciative onlookers, otherwise known as “the people.” The reason I dig this photo so much is because it offers a more complex image of Poitier than the one that had come to define him at the height of his fame in Hollywood. I have never been able to confirm the context of this photo, but I have always assumed that it was taken while he was preparing for his role as the expatriate horn player in the film Paris Blues. Whatever the circumstances though, the image itself suggests an authenticity, a certain street credibility that is much more complex than the conveniently integrationist symbolism that his persona has so often been reduced to.

By the late 1960s Sidney Poitier was the biggest box office draw in America. With movies like In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, his films had become their own genre. Accomplishing this was no small feat. When Poitier began his career, most movies featuring predominately Black casts were musicals. Black men who appeared in otherwise all white films tended to be represented as inarticulate, child-like buffoons; racial clowns who scratched when they didn’t itch and laughed when nothing was funny. Poitier’s rise to the top of the Hollywood mountain changed this. He was often the lone Black person moving through hostile white spaces. His refined, erudite and dignified image was a counter to the coonery and buffoonery that figures like Stepin’ Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Willie Best had previously represented. Like so many elite midcentury jazz musicians, Poitier wanted people to see him as an artist, not as a stereotypical entertainer. And in this he succeeded.

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