Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Critic at Large for the New York Times, gave this year’s State of the Cinema Address. His theme: The Radicalization of Sidney Poitier. It was in the Victoria Theatre on Saturday afternoon, and it was wonderful.
Coming on stage in a snappy red suit, he warned that he would give spoilers for In the Heat of the Night. There really weren’t any. The identity of the murderer was not revealed in the clip shown.
“Why Poitier?” he rhetorically asked. “It occurred to me looking at the trajectory of racial climate, something is changing about how race is depicted in popular culture. Black people are talking to black people in the movies.” For that change, “Ground zero for a lot of how we think about race is Sidney Poitier.”
Morris proved to be a very funny, entertaining talker. He mused on the moral complexities of the upcoming Harriet Tubman $20 bill. “Do you pay your weed dealer with a Tubman? Or put Tubmans into a stripper’s G-string?”
He talked about the people who objected to LBJ’s depiction in Selma. “People were mad because they turned the white president into ‘the help.’ They didn’t make it a white savior movie.”
Poitier “was first. White liberals wanted him to be good. Blacks wanted him to win. Before the slap [see below], they needed a black actor.”
He talked and showed clips from two of his more important films–Lilies of the Field, for which he became the first non-white to win a leading-role Oscar, and In the Heat of the Night.
By the time of Lilies of the Field, “America was ready to let Poitier spend time with white women, but only if they were nuns.”
But the real shock came in 1967 with Heat of the Night. This was the film where Poitier slapped a white man–and one who very much needed slapping. Even today it’s a powerful moment in a film that for the most part hasn’t aged well.
He also talked about some of his early, bad movies. He had particular contempt for Band of Angels, which he called “really racist” as well as really bad. I have to admit some curiosity.
“”His job was to comfort white people into accepting being comfortable with black people.”
In the end, Morris summed up what Poitier meant. “What did we lose when we lost movies interested in dealing with race? A lot of his films weren’t that great, but they kept a conversation going.