Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier offers lessons from his storied life to his great-granddaughter -- and to the rest of us. By Kristin Baird Rattini
Actor Sidney Poitier has played many roles in his lifetime, including knight commander of the British Empire, Bahamian ambassador to Japan, and Russian linguist. Don’t recall those movies, you say? Can’t find them on the Internet Movie Database? Perhaps that’s because they’re Poitier’s offscreen credits, a mere few of the myriad real-life achievements the 81-year-old star has garnered since he won his groundbreaking best-actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field in 1964 and became Hollywood’s leading African-American movie star.
Poitier added the title of best-selling author last year when Oprah Winfrey championed his 2000 memoir, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (HarperSanFrancisco, $15), helping to send it up to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Poitier has put pen to paper once again with his new book, Life Beyond Measure (HarperOne, $25), which was released on April 29. This time, in his cherished role as Poppy, Poitier shares stories from his well-examined life in a series of letters to his great-granddaughter, Ayele.
You’ve already written your memoir. What inspired you to write your new book? It was Ayele’s birth. I was approaching my 81st birthday, and I thought, Here is this new life. As my moments tick away over the succeeding years or months, she will just be coming into her own as a life. I got to thinking, What is it that I am leaving her?
I decided I would write her letters. I would speak to her about not just my life but life itself. I decided I would tell her about my 81 years, and I would leave for her my life on the pages of a book. And I would ask her to come and visit me there from time to time.
Your great-granddaughter is growing up in significantly different times than the racially charged times you lived through after you first moved to the United States from the Bahamas and as your career progressed in the 1950s and ’60s. What would you most like her to understand about those times and how they affected you? Racism is not the theme of the book. I am telling her about my times but also about other things infinitely more important than what the frailties of the social order were.
Instead, I would like to make a small contribution to her becoming a person who is worldly in her understanding of the human family. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves, the human family -- not just the black or Hispanic people among the family, or the Europeans or Asians among the family. We are all family. And I want her to be encouraged to view it as such and to be of the kind of service that would enhance and help and nurture all that is good in human beings.
In a chapter titled “People of Courage,” you list individuals, such as Martin Luther King Jr., whose courage you admire. Do you consider yourself a person of courage? I have no reason to try to measure it, but I can tell you this: I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t to some extent a person of courage, because I was challenged by life in so many ways I can’t even begin to go into. I was on my own in America at the age of 15. I had just a little while in Miami, and then I went to New York, where I had no friends, no relatives, no money. And I survived. I brought with me very few tools. I didn’t have much of an education. I had no money. I didn’t know America was as America was. But I survived.
You’ve earned so many honors for your work: the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, an Oscar for best actor, and an honorary Oscar. What do you hope your legacy in Hollywood will be? I don’t worry about that. I am no longer a part of the filmmaking industry. I spent 50-odd years working in the film industry, and I had a most remarkable experience overall. I loved it because I was able to do the kind of work I’ve done. I respect many of the individuals I’ve worked with who brought about the circumstances out of which I was able to become a fairly well-known person and a fairly well-accepted and respected actor.
As a matter of fact, I found the motion-picture industry to be a very, very … liberal is a word bandied about. I found it to be quite liberal. There was a whole question of racism, and I don’t think anyone connected with the industry would have denied that it existed before me and for the persons who followed me. The actors who followed me are perfect examples of what we were denied and what the culture was denied. There was no room for participation on an equal level in the film industry when I came along. There has been great improvement in this country on certain levels. That is one.
The Best from the Best
Sir Sidney Poitier was too polite to single out which of his more than 40 films he’d leave in a time capsule for his great-granddaughter, so we’ve taken the liberty of suggesting a few that Ayele’s generation -- and yours -- shouldn’t miss.
Blackboard Jungle, 1955 This gritty, urban-classroom drama not only ushered in the rock-and-roll era, it also introduced Poitier to the populace. His character, Gregory Miller, is an apathetic student and a musical prodigy who becomes a ray of hope and an unlikely ally to beleaguered teacher Richard Dadier, played by Glenn Ford.
Lilies of the Field, 1963 Poitier is itinerant worker Homer Smith, who builds a chapel for a group of nuns and realizes his work is taking on a higher purpose. Life imitated art -- the role earned Poitier an Oscar for best actor, the first ever for an African-American actor.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967 When Matt and Christina Drayton (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) meet their daughter’s African- American fiancé, the discussion and awkward self-examination that follow are not just the family’s but the nation’s.
To Sir, with Love, 1967 Poitier is at the head of the class as Mark Thackeray, an idealistic teacher who inspires a group of rough-and tumble, working-class students in London’s East End. The theme has since been repeated in dozens of copycat films.
In the Heat of the Night, 1967 Poitier plays Philadelphia homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who works with the white police chief (played by Rod Steiger) of a small Mississippi town on a murder case. Their partnership is uneasy at first, but it eventually grows into mutual respect and friendship.