He improved America’s perceptions of its black countrymen at a time when it really mattered.
My late parents, whose rocky divorce occurred in the 1970s when their three children were still in grade school, didn’t agree on much. But they did agree on Sidney Poitier, who died last week at 94.
For mom, men didn’t come better-looking. To both of my parents the actor exuded charm, grace and decency. They were idealizing a celebrity they didn’t know personally. But for millions of black people of Poitier’s generation, when dignified depictions of blacks in motion pictures were still scarce, his most famous roles—the detective in “In the Heat of the Night,” the teacher in “To Sir, With Love,” the doctor in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the handyman in “Lilies of the Field”—epitomized how a black man should carry himself.
Poitier’s heyday was the 1960s, and a case could be made that these positive portrayals of black men helped shift attitudes against Jim Crow almost as much as the sit-ins and marches led by civil-rights activists. Groups like the NAACP cared a great deal about how blacks were portrayed in the entertainment industry, which they linked to how everyday blacks comported themselves. Describing someone as “a credit to his race” was still commonplace.
Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for The Brigitte and Bobby Sherman Children's Foundation