Black power, Black is beautiful, and Black/White unification ideologies are all representative of a man who had the courage to address racism in a nonviolent manner through films, the iconic actor Sidney Poitier. His characters have touched on cultural and societal issues such as education/student culture, the class system, home/family, distinctive patterns of informal and formal structures within our cultural world and most importantly, racial discrimination. Presently, he is a social activist and has been the Bahamian ambassador toJapansince 1997.
White and black societies in 1950 may not have been prepared for the character of Dr. Brooks, a black junior physician resident, who was integrated into an all white hospital. The result portrayed the representation of acceptance and tolerance against racism viewed by the audience in No Way Out (1950) directed by Mankiewicz. The movie also incorporated Biddle, a racist character who personified the sentiment of the era. According to Hyatt and Sander (1984), “Sidney Poitier best typified the new, assimilationist hero. His middle class virtue and manners made him unthreatening to white audiences, while blacks took pride in a new black film star. (p. 163). This film had been considered outspoken for its time dealing with social issues and it was purposely not shown in the South while being censored in some northern states. It was a movie that captured the essence ofAmerica’s hatred for the “other” in a historical period of time. As Dauth (2006) remarked on the director’s conscious moral actions:
Making no concessions to audience sensibilities, Mankiewicz has Biddle let loose with every racial epithet in the book from his first moment on screen. I am not sure that a filmmaker today would even attempt what Mankiewicz dared to do 56 years ago. It was our integration period in history whereAmericaslowly began to open their eyes to the progression of diverse cultures within our society.
A by product of the Cold War resulted in the Korean War. When Communist North Korea invadedSouth Koreain 1950, President Truman sent the American military into action. The concept of “us and them” had been prevalent overseas as well as inAmerica. Segregation and racism were widespread yet, the radical changes of the beginning of the Civil Rights movement along with Poitier’s strongly expressed political messages of the social worth of racial integration both on and off the silver screen began to ignite a new way of thinking.
During the 1960’s the war on poverty coincided with the rising of the Black power ideology and in 67’ civil rights rioting was on the rise becoming the norm when To Sir With Love (1967) directed by Clavell, was first viewed by audiences. At that period, it was still unclear as the correlation between the two issues. It was an era of social struggles as Benson (1971) commented:
The Black power movement and the anti-poverty program shared the same social space and developed a complex interactive relationship. Their association in time and social location led some observers to argue that a causal relationship existed, i.e., that the War on Poverty in some way caused the growth of the Black power movement and its increasing militancy (328).
Years later, the film A Piece of the Action (1977) directed by Sidney Poitier who also played a lead role, was produced in the beginning of the golden age of black music and the historical representation of African Americans which had been televised in the series, Roots. President Carter announced the United Stats was cutting off all military aid to Ethiopiabecause of its human rights violations, and it had been a time whenAmerica was in a transition stage from separatism to civil rights. Another social issue was the sanctity of marriage. Marriage had begun to be viewed differently as one two of the characters “lived in sin.” and found it was acceptable.
Societal roles were reflected as feminism increased within the American culture and gender role attitudes changed towards gender equality. The altering in gender ideology had become a hot topic for the era. As seen in the film where two actresses were portrayed, one a stay at home type while the other was a college graduate working in a middle class environment. Other societal roles were personified as Poitier portrayed a criminal and thief dealing with a dignified retired police officer who had broken the law by enforcing his own punishment and yet, another character who represented a corrupt police officer. But, in the end the characters redeem themselves.
In examining the role of the family unit, the changing of family roles had not yet begun as shown in the film No Way Out. It was an era of the home ideology, the nuclear family and the rise of suburbia. As portrayed in the movie, the 1950’s were a period of “normal” typical families consisting of a husband, wife, and children. It was a time when the wife stayed at home, while the husband worked providing for his family. The perfect family and neighborhoods, where all portrayed was on a superficial level, and shown only a small part of what was reality to the audience. The film began by revealing Dr. Brooks, who had been the one to stay home while his wife took care of the family financially. It was a comment on the social relationships of women and a brief glance into feminism but, also a reminder of the strength of women who went to work while the men
were at war. The era had been a radical time with emerging questions of race, class, discrimination, and gender as Worldlingo web site reported:
American generation troubled by the Great Depression and World War II created a culture with emphasis on organization and suppression. African Americans took a generally different approach to a post war society, aiming for a greater inclusiveness and social awareness after a global crisis in the preceding decades.”
Throughout history it has been documented that American society’s racial tensions existed as even today where an individual’s racial grouping are mainly based on a person’s skin color. African Americans have long fought for equality of the white man and during the integration period To Sir With Love was produced in England reflecting the simple ideology of a man is a man and a teacher is teacher, good, bad, or indifferent regardless of skin tone and should be solely based on those qualities. The director introduced racism delicately to the audience as Shaw (2006) described this stigma, “However, he can never simply be a teacher. He is always a black teacher. He cannot escape the stigmas of 1960s race relations in England. This is evident when a student makes a racial joke (Clavell).” The ideology of twoness was presented by his educated, professional mannerisms and conflicting identity as he was an Englishman who at one time lived in America and was a dark skinned West Indian man. He lived within 2 cultures and struggled to succeed as did Dr. Brooks in No way out and Durrell’s dilemma in A Piece of the Action where he was a black criminal struggling with the straight life culture. Also according to Shaw (2006), “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife–this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.”
To Sir with Love revealed the school culture in England similar to the United States teens displaying rebellion through their actions as Shouse (2005) stated, “It is revealed through a language of music, dance, fun, and defiance; the products of their trade” (p.360). It also introduced societal role models as teachers who were portrayed as moral representatives:
Teachers will be increasingly called on to act as moral agents and to assume what Bryk and Driscoll (1988) called an “extended role” in the lives of students… this involved not simply invoking moral rules, but also explaining them, applying them, and allowing students to sometimes wrestle with them. (Shouse, 2005, p. 363).
The character Thackeray enlightened his students to the moral wrongs of racism while letting them make their own decisions on the issue. The students as well as Poitier symbolized the difficulty of identity formation within a racist society. The concept of seeing past one’s color was the final message and goal of the director. Whereas, in A Piece of the Action the character Durrell was faced with the dilemma of teaching defiant teenagers at a community youth center about their worth and value in society and not to consider themselves “Ghetto Chillin” as one student shouted, “If it wasn’t for niggers like us, you wouldn’t make shit!” The director’s message was geared towards the failed school system leaving these individuals without the teaching of how to think and problem solve. Durrell had taken them out into the real world to experience common courtesy and life just as Thackeray did in To Sir with Love when he arranged a museum trip for his students.
In hitting racism at it’s core, Poitier was cast in the leading role of No Way Out where violence, hatred, and the use of cruel language was a motif for example the “N” word that had been utilized blatantly expressing racism. It appeared taught and could be seen as a psychological brain washing of sorts which was also viewed in To Sir With Love. A second symbolic character facing cultural racism was Edie, a white female. A theory called the social role valorization could be seen in the film as the portrayal of social devaluation of her feminine role. It was Wharton, the Chief of the hospital that held the societal role of authority and spoke of the five block radius from where she came and discussed focusing on how far she has come in life. It was Wharton who spoke of his trust in Brooks as he questioned his own identity. According to Osburn (1998):
Therefore, the major goal of SRV (social role valorization) is to create or support socially valued roles for people in their society, because if a person holds valued social roles, that person is highly likely to receive from society those good things in life that are available to that society, and that can be conveyed by it, or at least the opportunities for obtaining these.
The questions that were posed with each of Poitier’s characters represented conflicting identity issues, racial violence and other social concerns which led to compassion and steered away from the anger held in the audience’s hearts. According to Osburn (2006) who expanded this concept, “SRV is especially relevant to two classes of people in society: those who are already societally devalued, and those who are at heightened risk of becoming devalued.” (p.4). What were the motives of the white actor’s compassion for equality within the interactions of a black character in No Way Out? Dauth (2006) explained the underlying meaning as:
In Mankiewicz’s world, do-gooding liberalism exhibits itself as plucky speeches, meager action, and a quick exit before the final scene. In fact, the last scene is played in Dr. Wharton’s empty house to which Biddle lures Brooks in order to kill him. Mankiewicz draws parallels between Biddle breaking into the unguarded house and racism infecting social discourse while liberalism is off sleeping.
The function of his roles were complex alluding to the audiences sense of fear of racism as in the disturbing riot scene heightening one’s anxiety and stirring their emotions. In 1967 a New York Times article written by Clifford Mason mentioned Poitier’s characters lacking in influence of the changing of the stereotypical African Americans. He discussed his characters as, “…unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.” He then went on:
In essence, they are merely contrivances, completely lacking in any real artistic merit. In all of these films he has been a showcase nigger, who is given a clean suit and a complete purity of motivation so that, like a mistreated puppy, he has all the sympathy on his side and all those mean whites are just so many Simon Legrees. Whereas, Vincent Canby (2000), The New York Times film critic, wrote “Sidney Poitier… the actor does not make movies, he makes milestones.”
Within the film Now Way Out, Poitier’s character’s persona represented racial discrimination associated within the film as well as in reality. He overcame the cruel prejudices and found himself isolated with the need prove his innocence while also proving his qualifications as a doctor, not only to society but, to himself. Racism was portrayed in a milder atmosphere in England than what was actually happening in the United States at the time of To Sir With Love. Thackeray’s persona in this film was an authoritative teacher figure represented a calm, cool headed, nonviolent individual dealing in a rational manner with racism within a working class school system.
Poitier’s strong beliefs in American culture were explained in 1950 to Archer Winsten stating, “…that the New Hollywood would “integrate Negroes into the
American scene, not as Negroes, but as persons.” At the time of the Civil Right movement Poitier was well known in the white community specifically because of the color of his skin whereas, the African Americans of the era considered him an Uncle Tom due not being more radical in his representation of their community. It was then that his fight became more pronounced as Ross (1989) quoted Poitier:
“…fight became not about race but about self—“In America”…it is difficult to be your own man. But by focusing on the big picture—the breadth of who he is as a man, not confined by color—he has indeed embraced the fullness of his humanity”
The impact of the black audience is expressing itself, “Mr. Poitier continued. “They look to films to be more expressive of their needs, their lives.Hollywoodhas gotten that message – finally.” Growth, But Not Enough.
Benson, J. K. (1971). Militant Ideologies and Organizational Contexts: The War on Poverty and the Ideology of “Black Power. The Sociological Quarterly, 12, 328- 339. Retrieved June 13, 2010, from http://www.jstor.org.library.esc.edu/stable/pdfplus/4105498.pdf
Dauth, B. (2006, April 13). Joseph L. Mankiewicz’sNo WayOut: Neglected for Decades. Retrieved June 10, 2010, from http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2006/dauth130406.html
Hyatt, M. and Sanders, C. (1984). Film as a Medium to Study the Twentieth-Century Afro-American Experience. The Journal of Negro Education, 53(2), 161-172. Retrieved June 13, 2010, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2294817
Manson, C. (1967, September 10). Why Does WhiteAmericaLove Sidney Poitier So?. The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/heat-ar.html
Martin, B. (2006). SRV & NVA: valorizing social roles through nonviolent action.The SRV Journal, 1(2), 25-33. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/06srvj.html
Osburn, J. (198). An Overview of Social Role Valorization Theory. The International SRV Journal, retrieved June 19, 2010, from http://www.srvip.org/overview_SRV_Osburn.pdf
Ross, M. E. (1989, February 28). Sidney Poitier on 40 Years of Change. The New York Times retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/28/movies/sidney-poitier-on-40-years-of-change.html
Shaw, W. (2006). Twoness in Identity Formation. Education and Social Justice. Retrieved June 16, 2010, from http://www.geneseo.edu/~esjj/Spring2006_2.html
Shouse, R. C. (2005). Taking Lulu seriously: what we can learn from To Sir with Love. Journal of Educational Administration, 43(4/5), 357-368. Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://proquest.umi.com.library.esc.edu/pqdweb?index=0&did=914356771&Srch Mode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQ D&TS=1276359188&clientId=63430&cfc=1
Wazir, B. (2000). The leading man. Retrieved June 19, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2000/oct/08/features.burhanwazir
Winfrey, O. (2000, October 15). Oprah Talks to Sidney Poitier. The Oprah Magazine, Retrieved June 15, 2010, from http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/Oprah-Interviews-Sidney-Poitier
Growth But Not Enough ~ Sidney Poitier 2 comments
Tagged with A Piece of the Action (1977), American culture, Black is beautiful, Black power, Black/White unification ideologies, Civil Rights Movement, fear, films, moral wrongs of racism, movies, No Way Out (1950), racial tensions, Sidney Poitier, social role valorization, To Sir With Love (1967)