You get no reprieve from Death, who sneaks into people’s lives when they least expect him. Yet everybody knows Death awaits, and regardless of how fast you run from him, Death will catch you at some point.
He caught Sydney Poitier on Friday.
Poitier, 94 when he died, was one of the most gifted actors of his generation. I didn’t say Black actors, for Poitier’s skills were colorless, much in the way any artist’s skills are. Do we dare assign color to Leonardo DiCaprio, Viola Davis or Denzel Washington for their masterly work?
No, we don’t. We look at the creativity they treat us to and savor every second.
That’s what I’m doing with Poitier, whose filmography spans the entirety of my life. He left behind memorable characters from his movies, such as “The Long Ships,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”
What he did best of all, however, was present a coolness that few actors could mimic on the screen and in life. Regardless of the role, Poitier was regal and cool like Fonzie, if I can use that sitcom character as a reference point.
Poitier wasn’t just cool on camera; he was cool off camera, too.
In his autobiography, he wrote: “I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me. There is a certain anger: it reaches such intensity that to express it fully would require homicidal rage …”
To look at his words and construe them as a sign of timidity is to ignore his presence outside Hollywood. Poitier was a political activist, a prominent figure in civil rights.
In March 1963, a year before he became the first Black man to win an Oscar for “Best Actor” (“Lilies in the Field”), Poitier stood on stage with entertainer Harry Belafonte in Washington, D.C., as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech.
Years later, King would laud Poitier as “a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”
Indeed, he was dedicated to human rights. How could he not?
Raised in the Bahamas, Poitier had a bird’s-eye view of inequality. He worked tirelessly to level the landscape. Acting was a platform from which he knew his voice would be heard.
I’m giving fleeting acknowledgement to Poitier’s work on equality. I blame my shortcomings for that, not his.
For what I will remember most about him is his acting. His performance that touched me most came in “To Sir, with Love,” based on E.R. Braithwaite’s fictional book. Poitier played “Mark Thackeray,” a Black engineer who accepted a teacher’s job in a white, hardscrabble neighborhood in East London as he awaited an offer from an engineering firm.
In the film, Poitier showed what a classroom is like — what educators learn when they look and listen. He helped his students; they helped him.
Nearly three decades later, he reprised the Thackeray character in “To Sir, with Love II,” a made-for-TV film. In my mind, Hollywood and Poitier might have done better to have left the original alone.
But I cheat his other work to dwell on one film. Poitier put so much into his acting, which explains why he earned my admiration, my respect, my appreciation.
Thanks, Sydney, for the memories.