Special is as special does, and Sidney Poitier is special for very specific reasons. Few can honestly say that they may have actually changed something of great importance to the world at large. Poitier can easily say that, without however much of a blush would show on his indelibly black skin. The reason is that he has walked the walk, talked the talk, and beaten clichés and stereotypes as though they had stolen something, which is what things substantially removed from the facts of life always do. In the worst years of American racial misunderstanding, clichés and stereotypes stole the universal human truth showing itself across the lines of color, but did not stop there. They who swore by those distortions stood up, daring anyone to challenge their intentional or dangerously naïve misreading of things as they truly are.

That misunderstanding led to a set of conventions that defined the tone and set the practices common to motion pictures. The intertwining of profit with national race politics was irresistibly influenced by what must be seen as charismatic, even highly innovative storytelling. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation was a technical masterpiece, the first blockbuster, and a tale made monstrous by the racist bile at the center of its narrative. Griffith’s most influential work, it greatly advanced cinematic technique and set the pace for projecting huge, paranoid lies as acceptable versions of the truth in black and white, light and shadow. From that point on, Southern audiences choosing not to attend a movie could cost any film company considerable revenue. Consequently, the Dream Machine adhered to the racial limitations of black stereotypes as though the head office of every studio was run by rednecks. Servile or buffoon darkies were preferred to any other. “Demanded” would better describe the situation. Such lies, such distortions, and such denigration maintained power in Hollywood for over 30 years, and every departure from what amounted to a despicably nauseating tradition was considered bold and laden with risks.

Moving against those conventions called for a hero, which is not expected in the temple of mediocre but highly polished dreams, supported by a chorus formed of evening jackets, gowns, and red carpets. The worshippers who fall to their knees in that temple almost never use the words “courage” or “integrity” to describe anything tilted toward artistry. Even so, had anyone decided to say that Hollywood is not a place for heroic behavior, that person would be as inaccurate as possible because Hollywood is fundamentally a place for heroes and for heroic behavior. That is because audiences love two things more than anything else: the heroes, romantic or not, and the villains, romantic or not; the former just a bit more than the latter. That is formidable territory in which few write their own parts. Yet right there, in the middle of all of those deals, all of those budgetary concerns, all of that cinematic technology, all those wardrobes, sets, and screenwriters, as well as the actors taking direction from men who had to recognize each film as a whole while making it, right there is where Poitier became a two-dimensional hero up on the screen and helped expand our understanding of human commonality by imposing his will, courage, and integrity in three dimensions. What you saw was what you got.

The roller coaster of successful movie careers begins with minor vehicles, proceeds to growing notice, achieves success, becomes so predictable that the actor and the style represented are rejected, the films begin to make less and less money, and all that can be said has usually been said and most of what could be done was or was not done. Poitier’s career is very different because what made him important when he was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood is almost as important today as it was in the Fifties when his career began to ascend. The parts were many and varied but, like all things in the arts, there were central themes to his first films and they remained in place throughout a long and complex career.

If two films are closely examined, No Way Out from 1950 and Edge of the City from 1957, one can see how Poitier, from the very beginning, delivered something that few black actors in Hollywood had been allowed to bring to a role before he arrived on screen. Many enduring aesthetic choices can be seen in his film debut, No Way Out, a Joseph L. Mankiewicz minor masterpiece. It uses the conventions of film noir to explore the tensions and releases from bigotry as successfully as John Ford took advantage of what the Old West made possible in order to examine the meanings and ramifications of irresponsible leadership, genocide, miscegenation, the American character, and so on.

In a script written and directed by Mankiewicz but brought to fruition by Darryl F. Zanuck, Poitier plays a young doctor periodically slapped in the face by race prejudice. America had never seen a cinematic lead character like his Dr. Luther Brooks, who was sophisticated, intelligent, just out of medical school, and in possession of exacting skill. He also had a sense of humor far removed from the updates of minstrel buffoonery that continue today. Right now, Dr. Brooks seems like a contemporary black American put into a time machine and sent to America 60 years ago.

The kind of deep feeling rendered by Poitier and elaborated upon by all of the black characters in the film had not been seen since King Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah!. In the Mankiewicz film, we see what the actor brought and the extensive influence it had on so many following him. First, Poitier broke the color line accepted by whites and blacks for a leading man. He was as black as a Mississippi evening at the deep point of midnight. His hair was not mucked up by the desire to be straightened and, while making No Way Out, it was discovered that he was far too dark to do an intended scene near a coal bin because the camera could not have “seen” him, so the scene was cut from the script and never shot. No matter how handsome the actor looks today, his presence in close-up was new in itself because men of his complexion were not considered attractive in the Fifties. So, along with Miles Davis, Poitier’s presence up there on the screen expanded the idea of the male matinee idol.

His persona provided the aesthetic clay out of which the actor molded all of his intelligent characters whose very existence within realistic contexts made it clear just how crude and off the mark racism was in its constricted vision of human variety. Luther Brooks evolves into the doctor engaged to the young liberal white woman in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (68); the snappy detective of In the Heat of the Night (67); the tall, dark, and handsome love interest in For Love of Ivy (68); the upper-class doctor from A Patch of Blue (65); the prison psychiatrist in Pressure Point (62); the popular teacher of To Sir, With Love (67); and so on. All were depicted as civilized men who had worked their way up to the top of their professions. They had done what needed to be done in order to rise up from where they started. Self-confidence, familial support, and the backbone provided by close friends were basic. They got there faster if they had them; if they did not, they bit the bullet, perhaps broke a few teeth, but still got there. All of them shared a slight veneer of unforced arrogance mixed in with what usually turned out to be a healthy sense of self-deprecation. That may now seem insignificant but it was not and still is not. Any time a group denies the possibility or the existence of various kinds of achievers in arenas that demand high quality from their participants, the group paints itself into the sticky corner of low expectations. Poitier was well aware of this and chose his roles accordingly. This did not please hysterics and racists, but they should never be on the “to please” list.

What must have been very troubling to racial ideologues was the easeful authority Poitier gives Dr. Brooks and the conventionally wholesome quality of the doctor’s family. By now everyone should know that good art does not automatically result from good politics or high-mindedness. No Way Out does not suffer the limitations of agitprop, and that is why it has a lasting feeling. There is the mysteriousness of their quirks and internal reactions to the life around them that the director and his actors brought to the internal dimensions of the characters so that they continue to surprise us.

Possessed of a superior performer’s sense of nuance, Poitier already understands the levels of undertone possible in the reaction shots that any important film actor must master. Therefore, the ethnic backstory appears in the actor’s face when he is silently responding to Richard Widmark’s unapologetic racist. Strong, subtle, and ambivalent emotion comes out in layers of revulsion, assertiveness, and the awe felt by the young doctor going nose to nose with an irrationality capable of violence or murder but beyond shame or guilt. Manipulative and bitter, essentially childish and full of self-pity, Widmark’s character suffers the waves of hysteria that demand his attention and that of everyone else. He stands with Robert Ryan’s anti-Semitic murderer in Crossfire. The visceral realization of evil remains extremely powerful but never overdone because the artistry has a full force that stops short of the melodramatic.

In 1957, Poitier performed opposite John Cassavetes in Edge of the City. Pauline Kael wrote of his Tommy Tyler portrayal that the actor was “startlingly good” and the tale was proclaimed a milestone by film critics and civil rights organizations for having portrayed an interracial friendship that may have been the first of its kind in American film. What makes it tower over many films made then or since is the unbridled natural grasp of the human quality delivered in spades by Poitier, Cassavetes, Ruby Dee, and Kathleen Maguire. Poitier’s Tommy has an almost heartbreaking effect in his absolute freedom from the stereotypic, moving with such vitality through so many more moods than would be expected of a black character then or now.

He is defensively cocky, humorous, realistically in love with his wife, so playful that he is given to satirical and fully conscious pretensions, a compassionate listener, an almost timidly affectionate father, a fair dancer, a matchmaker, and a man who would rather laugh at or ignore racism than take the chance of being inwardly affected by it. His tragedy is that he does not realize how much resentment his relaxed attitude brings out in the bigoted foreman whom Jack Warden makes so menacing; the man’s hatred for Tommy builds until any disagreement or dismissal, however lightly delivered, is interpreted as symbolic ethnic castration, a loss of power and terrain that is finally unacceptable. The shock, terror, and rage that sears Tommy’s face when he realizes that his calm has sparked a life-or-death situation in which he could be murdered and lose everything about which he deeply cares, is one of the highest of the high points in Poitier’s career. The absurdity of the entire moment telescopes the deeper and most universal meaning of true bigotry: its deafness to reason and commitment to paranoid exclusion and destruction.

What Poitier discovered as he went about the making of Tommy into a three-dimensional person allowed him access to the common man which democracy always celebrates and which people the world over always find attractive and inspiring. The common man’s mythic openness to life is the centerpiece of the democratic idea: goodness, humor, talent, and empathy are not limited by ethnic packaging, social status, religion, or geography—nor are all of the bad things in life. Tommy made possible what the actor brought to The Defiant Ones (58), A Raisin in the Sun (61), Lilies of the Field (63), and even the Seventies “Uptown” comedies co-starring Bill Cosby.

In Poitier’s myriad kinds of reaction shots one can see the fundamental uses of the eyes, the mouth, and the positions of the head of which almost every outstanding black actor who has come forward in his wake also employs. It is a veritable compendium for all of the originals who still refer to him in the way that the most original jazz musicians always echo some aspect of Louis Armstrong, the seer of instrumental and vocal blues and swing, usually known as jazz. One can see essences of Tommy Tyler in the work of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, Don Cheadle, and Terrence Howard, for starters; just as what Marlon Brando does in On the Waterfront opens the way for Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Leonard DiCaprio. Pay close attention, you will see what I mean in both films.

Inarguable: special is as special does, and Sidney Poitier deserves that description as much as any other artist in the popular arts of our time. He is a genius of human feeling, and those kinds of people last as long as the species does. 

Stanley Crouch is a cultural critic, syndicated columnist, and novelist who recently became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His recent books include Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz and The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity.