I have been a fan of Sidney Poitier for most of my life, so I found his passing this week, at 94 years old, a poignant event. I liked him even more after watching this moving clip of an interview he gave to Lesley Stahl. Knowing that he once worked as a dishwasher deepened my appreciation of him. I'm attracted to people who haven't always lived a pampered existence. Poitier had it rough for a while. Here he tells a beautiful story about how a waiter, who worked in the restaurant where he was washing dishes, took Poitier under his wing and taught him to read.
Reflecting on the movies of his that I found so compelling, it occurs to me that, while much of Poitier's art was transgressive at the time it was made, in some ways it is even more transgressive now.
In To Sir, With Love, one of the primary themes revolved around the importance of decorum and manners as signifying self-respect and respect for others. That there might be universal standards with which barbarians could be identified and judged is something our culture largely rejects. The present cultural obsession with the moral autonomy of the individual, and the perceived essential moral virtue of any and all self-expression, represents a point of view that is completely at odds with the themes found in To Sir, With Love.
In Lilies of the Field, for which Poitier received an Academy Award, a primary sub-plot involved the resistance to employing Poitier's character by the owner of a construction company due to Poitier's race. The resistance is eventually overcome by Poitier's obvious competence and skill at doing the work needed by the construction company owner. By the end of the movie the owner is offering Poitier's character a permanent job as foreman. It wasn't political agitation or virtue signaling that was the catalyst for change in the racist owner, but the obvious humanity, skill and competence exhibited by Poitier. Poitier's character didn't win the company over because of his race, but because of his character. This messaging is unlikely to be countenanced for long.
But it is perhaps Poitier's role and dialog in the 1967 movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner with which he most egregiously runs afoul of the modern woke thought police. Poitier starred alongside Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in what was, at the time, a provocative movie regarding interracial marriage. Poitier played the role of a young black doctor who falls in love with the young white daughter of a San Francisco newspaper publisher. The entire story takes place during a single day in which the parents of the young daughter are being asked to give their blessing to the impending marriage, the parents having just that day found out about it. The script is a fascinating study in personal relationships and attitudes toward race.
Where it runs afoul of modern pieties is in its rejection of trendy racialist assumptions about identity, and in its conception of what constitutes a marriage. There are two pivotal scenes that address these two questions.
In the first scene, we discover that, in a delicious plot twist, the black parents of the young doctor are just as opposed to the impending marriage as the white parents. There ensues a loud and painful confrontation between father and son over the question of a black man marrying a white woman. In the clip below, we pick up just at the moment the tension begins to subside and Poitier's character sums up the differing perspectives about racial identity between he and his father. (Poitier's father is played by the fantastic character actor Roy Glenn.)
The perspective expressed by Poitier's character, which reflected the inevitable conclusions pointed to by the arguments being made by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, would probably cause the Ibram X. Kendi's and Robin DiAngelo's of the world to swallow their tongues if they were ever exposed to such heresy. Even erstwhile conservative evangelical churches are now preaching that a person's skin color represents the inescapable lens through which everyone must view their lives. Surely we can't allow movies like this, presenting ideas as virtuous which are so at odds with critical race theory, to continue to be shown unmolested.
And if the notion that race is irrelevant is not sufficient poking of the woke bear, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner also offers a transgressive take on the purpose of marriage - one that is at odds all the assumptions of the gay marriage crowd.
Within popular culture, there's a great deal of discussion about what we can or can't do, but precious little discussion regarding what we're for. In this scene, Poitier's character makes an assertion regarding what marriage is for. It's straight out of the Judeo-Christian point of view originating from first few chapters of the Bible's book of Genesis. And if it's true, it closely couples biology, anatomy, morality, and commandment into a cohesive package that illuminates the purpose, or as the Greeks would say - the telos, of marriage. But, of course, this is viciously at odds with the current zeitgeist regarding the purpose of marriage. The predominating idea, that marriage is primarily a vehicle for self-expression and physical intimacy but without an end beyond self-fulfillment, is completely at odds with the view offered in this clip. If the producing of children is, in any way at all, definitional of marriage, then such a thing holds profound implications for the biology of the participants and the definition and permanence of a family.
Brendan Eich was run out of town for thinking such thoughts.
Perhaps Poitier "grew" in the years after making these films and managed to conform himself more to the groupthink required to maintain membership among the popular kids. I have no idea. But to my knowledge he didn't disavow his own movies. And so it seems very unlikely that Sidney Poitier will remain unscathed by the current frenzied enthusiasm for tearing down, Taliban-like, everything that doesn't measure up to the modern progressive's sense of their own moral superiority.