The importance of being Sidney

As a festival of black cinema begins, Mike Phillips celebrates the roles played by Poitier - on and off the screen
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The Independent Culture

Some of Sidney Poitier's best-known films are being featured in a retrospective at the 2nd BFM International Black Film Festival. But it is his early films in the Fifties and his later career as a Hollywood director and producer for which Poitier will be remembered.

Some of Sidney Poitier's best-known films are being featured in a retrospective at the 2nd BFM International Black Film Festival. But it is his early films in the Fifties and his later career as a Hollywood director and producer for which Poitier will be remembered.

If there is a single black actor who can claim the status of an American icon, it is Poitier, and throughout the world his image is a symbol of American identity. But, like many other famous African Americans, the story of his early life reads like a classic of West Indian migration.

The youngest of a Nassau fisherman's eight children, he arrived in New York in the mid-1940s, and slept in the toilet of the bus station, before moving to Harlem. There he worked as a dockhand, dish-washer, chicken plucker and a bus boy, before reading a notice in the New York Times advertising auditions at the American Negro Theater. His first audition ended in a humiliating dismissal, but he persevered, and by the end of the decade he was chosen for Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out (1950).

This was a new departure in the film-making of the time, fuelled by the debates over integration and by the growing urgency of black activism. So it was the first serious integrationist drama of the Fifties, creating a storyline which ran though American movies from that time to the present day.

During his time with the Negro Theater, Poitier had begun to build up a dramatic persona which was perfect for the string of important movies focusing on race and inner-city problems - No Way Out, Cry, the Beloved Country (1952) , Blackboard Jungle (1955) , Edge of the City (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958) .

After winning an Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963), Poitier was trashed by various critics for his alleged complacency towards Hollywood racism. Yet this group of movies had an urgent radical edge at a time when the McCarthyite witch hunts were in full cry and when segregation was a routine part of life in the South. Poitier's roles represented a liberal fantasy - the black man who was a perfect reflection of the integrationist ideal. On the other hand, they also helped to inspire and reinforce the civil rights struggle in the USA.

In them he creates a persona whose humanity and moral stature is irreducible, and whose charm, intelligence and sophistication present the only corrective to the imagery of the black man as a brute or a clown, which was a staple of Hollywood movies at the time.

In 1972 he broke new ground again, directing Buck and the Preacher, in which he starred with his fellow Negro Theater graduate, Harry Belafonte. This was followed by a string of romances and comedies - A Warm December (1973) , Uptown Saturday Night (1975) , Let's Do It Again (1976) , A Piece of the Action (1977). These were lightweight confections, but they featured an ethnic humour which had never been the subject of big-time Hollywood entertainment; and for the first time, audiences were seeing a group of legendary black entertainers who had managed to capture some of the capital they had created and were still up there doing their own thing.

The popularity of these films in the black community created the style and atmosphere which cleared the way for succeeding generations of black TV sitcoms, and opened up a new sector for black artists. Since the decline of the black cinema in the 1920s, no black actor or director had succeeded in extending his career in this way, inspiring and paving the way for succeeding generations of black actors, directors, producers and writers.

In the documentary of his life, to be shown in the BFM festival, Larry Fishburne acknowledges the debt of gratitude later generations of black film-makers owe to Poitier. Fifty years after his first appearance on the screen, black film-makers and writers are beginning to believe that, in Poitier's case, his work is certain to outlive the man's critics.

Mike Phillips's latest novel, 'A Shadow of Myself', is published by HarperCollins, £15.99

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