Martin, Sidney, and Oscar
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50 Voices for 50 Years

Martin, Sidney, and Oscar

By Aram Goudsouzian

 

As Sidney Poitier strode across the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the audience erupted in cheers. People stood, they clapped, they whistled and roared, they yelled Bravo! The elegant, tuxedo-clad actor stepped behind the podium, holding a composed smile as the applause washed over him.[1]

The occasion was the fortieth presentation of the Academy Awards. But Poitier did not win an Oscar. He was not even nominated – he was announcing the winner for Best Actress. The audience reaction was rooted in two elements: Poitier’s historic role as Hollywood’s sole black leading man in the civil rights era, and the recent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Oscars took place on April 10, 1968, just six days after King’s murder, and just one day after his body was laid to rest. African Americans were full of rage and despair, as evidenced by riots in major cities. The ceremony was as far removed from the crisis of race, poverty, and violence as any place in the United States of America. Yet the 1968 Academy Awards offer a lens into the larger society’s engagement with race in the aftermath of King’s assassination, from a genuine yearning for brotherhood to a cool indifference. It also revealed an American tendency to displace political action through popular culture – in this case, through the icon of Sidney Poitier.  

Poitier was, in a sense, the MLK of the movies. As King stirred the nation’s conscience with powerful oratory and nonviolent demonstrations, Poitier played a new black man, projecting dignity and goodness. His image countered the silly or oversexed stereotypes of the past. Poitier catapulted to stardom in the late 1950s, as King was emerging as the nation’s pre-eminent black leader. Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor for Lilies of the Field in 1964, in the wake of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. The two men communicated similar ideals: love your fellow man, occupy the high moral ground, embrace the American democratic tradition.[2]

Chicago, IL Freedom Festival, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Martin Luther King Jr., Al Raby, Mahalia Jackson 1966By the late 1960s, both men treaded on rocky terrain. King was the target of a white conservative backlash; he had spoken out against the Vietnam War, demanded “a revolution of values” among American citizens, and planned the Poor People’s Campaign, a massive demonstration on Washington D.C. Poitier seemed to soothe white consciences. In late 1967 and early 1968, he had three consecutive blockbusters – To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – in which he played restrained, near-perfect heroes. In an age of Black Power and the counterculture, he faced his own backlash. His critics considered his icon a white fantasy of contained blackness.[3]

But to King, Poitier was a “soul brother.” In August 1967, King introduced Poitier as the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “a man with an unswerving dedication to the principles of freedom and human dignity, a man of genuine humanitarian concern and basic goodwill.”

Meanwhile, Poitier praised King as “a new man in an old world.” In his SCLC speech, Poitier lamented those who took middle-of-the-road positions that “corrode further the dignity and integrity of human life.” He celebrated how King lived by his convictions, demanding a radical reorientation of national priorities, despite the personal and political costs. “He has made a better man of me,” said Poitier, who promised to reassert his devotion to countering society’s greed and racism.[4]

Singer Nancy Wilson, actress Eartha Kitt, musician/dancer/actor Sammy Davis Jr., actor Sidney Poitier, Berry Gordy Jr. (Motwon Label founder) and actor Marlon Brando going to Martin Luther King’s Funeral.After King’s assassination, Poitier joined the memorial march in Memphis, then flew to Atlanta for the funeral. Along with Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and Louis Armstrong, Poitier announced that he would skip the Oscars, which were scheduled for Monday, April 8. After the Academy’s Board of Governors voted to postpone the event for two days, the four black celebrities agreed to attend.      

Poitier seemed to represent King’s dream. In its issue reporting on the assassination, the Pittsburgh Courier also printed a quotation describing the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, alongside a still from the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told that showed Jesus carrying the cross up Calvary, aided by Simon of Cyrene – played by Sidney Poitier.[5] 

Gregory Peck opened the Academy Awards with appropriate solemnity, paying respect to the slain leader. He added: “One measure of Dr. King’s influence on society we live in is that of the five films nominated for Best Picture of the Year, two dealt with the subject of understanding between the races.” Both were Poitier films, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

But emcee Bob Hope projected a gruff disinterest in the agonies of black Americans. He made stale jokes about the two-day postponement. “Any delay really snarls up programming,” he said, quipping that sponsor Eastman-Kodak was unhappy about “a show that took three days to develop.” He seemed annoyed by this unnecessary fuss. His only other reference to King was a moment of Hollywood self-congratulation, hailing producers Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldwyn “because they, too, had a dream.”

Poitier offered a particular moral presence, like a ghost of King. His movies won a host of awards, including Best Original Screenplay for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Best Adapted Screenplay for In the Heat of the Night. Katharine Hepburn, his co-star in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, won Best Actress. When Rod Steiger won Best Actor, he thanked his co-star from In the Heat of the Night for “the pleasure of his friendship, which gave me the knowledge and understanding of prejudice in order to enhance this performance.” He ended: “We shall overcome.”[6]

So why, with three celebrated films and such industry-wide admiration, did Poitier receive no Oscar nominations? Critic Vernon Scott assessed that Poitier’s super-smooth, super-smart, super-sincere characters had become their own liberal stereotype. “When Sidney returns to playing believable parts in pictures and forgets his role as Super Negro,” he wrote, “people will no longer find it necessary to ask why Poitier wasn’t nominated.”[7] 

“Along with the fight to desegregate the schools, we must desegregate the entire cultural statement of America,” wrote John Oliver Killens. “We must desegregate the minds of the American people.” [8]  Poitier’s movies contributed to the ideals set forth by Martin Luther King, winning favor among many white Americans. But his films failed to depict black characters as flesh-and-blood people, capable of heroism and villainy and ambiguity and change.

Then again, Hollywood almost never tackles social problems, at least not directly. As critic Michael Wood writes, “Entertainment is not, as we often think, a full-scale flight from our problems, not a means of forgetting them completely, but rather a rearrangement of our problems into shapes which tame them, which disperse them to the margins of our attention.”[9] The 1968 Oscars, like those Poitier films, showcased a racial ambiguity. In the wake of King’s assassination, Hollywood offered gestures and symbols, a slightly displaced respect. It acknowledged the burdens of race without insisting on change.

 


[1] Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (New York: Penguin Pres, 2008), 414.

[2] Aram Goudsouzian, “Walking With Kings: Poitier, King, and Obama,” in Ian Gregory Strachan and Mia Mask, eds., Poitier Revisited: Reconsidering a Black Icon in the Obama Age (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 5-30.

[3] Aram Goudsouzian, Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 231-296.

[4] “I Have Decided to Start With Myself,” Keynote Address by Mr. Sidney Poitier, with remarks by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. Dorothy F. Cotton, and Rev. Andrew J. Young,  August 14,1967, Part 3, Reel 10, Papers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

[5] Pittsburgh Courier, 13 April 1968.

[6] Harris, Pictures at a Revolution, 407-417.

[7] Vernon Scott, “Why No Honors For Poitier?,” Washington Post, 2 March 1968.

[8] John Oliver Killens, The Black Man’s Burden (New York: Trident Press, 1965), 42

[9] Michael Wood, “America in the Movies,” in West of the West: Imagining California, edited by  Leonard Michaels, David Reid, and Raquel L. Scherr (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 42.

 

About Aram Goudsouzian

Aram Goudsouzian is the chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis. Dr. Goudsouzian earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University. He specializes in 20th century American history, with a particular focus on race, politics, and culture. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (2014), King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution (2010), and Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon (2004). He and Charles McKinney have co-edited a collection of essays, An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee, which is forthcoming in 2018.

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