Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In The Blackboard Jungle and succeeding films, Sidney Poitier became a true Hollywood leading man, helping redefine the on-screen image of African Americans and paving the way for generations of later actors.

Summary of Event

As late as 1954, success as an actor still eluded the young Sidney Poitier, who had to take nonacting jobs to make ends meet. True, he had come far, considering his lack of formal education. Born in the United States in 1924, he had spent his childhood in the Bahamas before returning to the United States as a teenager. Starting out in New York City as a dishwasher, he had begun taking acting lessons after answering an advertisement by the American Negro Theatre American Negro Theatre in a Harlem newspaper; with great effort, he had eliminated his West Indian accent. Stage roles were followed by an appearance in an Army Signal Corps film, From Whence Cometh My Help (1949). Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Blackboard Jungle, The (Brooks) Hollywood studio system;stardom African Americans;performers [kw]Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle (Mar. 19, 1955) [kw]Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle, Poitier Emerges as a (Mar. 19, 1955) [kw]Star in The Blackboard Jungle, Poitier Emerges as a Film (Mar. 19, 1955) [kw]Blackboard Jungle, Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The (Mar. 19, 1955) Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Blackboard Jungle, The (Brooks) Hollywood studio system;stardom African Americans;performers [g]North America;Mar. 19, 1955: Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle[04790] [g]United States;Mar. 19, 1955: Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle[04790] [c]Motion pictures and video;Mar. 19, 1955: Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle[04790] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 19, 1955: Poitier Emerges as a Film Star in The Blackboard Jungle[04790] Poitier, Sidney Brooks, Richard Ford, Glenn

Sidney Poitier (right) and Glenn Ford in a scene from The Blackboard Jungle.

(Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive)

In 1949, Poitier, despite his meager film experience, was chosen by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz Mankiewicz, Joseph L. to appear in No Way Out No Way Out (Mankeiwicz) (1950). In the film, Dr. Luther Brooks (Poitier), an African American intern in a Northern city hospital, is accused by white racist Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) of murder after Biddle’s brother dies while under Brooks’s care. A race riot erupts and, ultimately, Brooks is cleared of all wrongdoing; when Biddle is injured, Brooks cares for him. Though No Way Out was a break for Poitier, the film was a financial failure.

Poitier’s next film, Cry the Beloved Country (1952), explored South Africa’s racial problems at the family level and was a critical but not a box-office success. Between 1951 and 1954, Poitier played in only two other films: Red Ball Express (1952), a story about African American U.S. Army soldiers in World War II; and Go, Man, Go! (1954), about the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Neither film reaped the critical and popular acclaim Poitier sought.

In 1954, Poitier was offered a role in a film about a young teacher’s ordeal in a New York City high school. The director, Richard Brooks, a nonconformist by nature, wanted Poitier despite Poitier’s rumored association with left-wing entertainers, a disadvantage in the anticommunist climate of the times. Glenn Ford played Richard Dadier, who teaches rebellious older teenagers too young to join the Army or get full-time jobs. Playing Gregory Miller, an intelligent but troubled youngster, Poitier, the only African American member of the cast, skillfully makes viewers feel Miller’s alienation and anger. As in later films, he projects passion without seeming menacing. Although Miller at first joins the other pupils in harassing Dadier, he is ultimately won over by Dadier’s arguments and example; when the school bully attacks Dadier with a knife, Miller steps in to defend Dadier.

The scenes of student violence in The Blackboard Jungle shocked audiences when the film was released on March 19, 1955. In the relatively prosperous and tranquil 1950’s, many film viewers could not believe that such chaotic schools actually existed. The film’s vision of big-city schools, educators insisted, was exaggerated. The American ambassador to Italy pressured judges into dropping the film from the Venice Film Festival. Censorship;United States Censors in the South objected not merely to the film’s depiction of violence but also to the racial integration of Dadier’s classroom.

The Blackboard Jungle was a hit, not only because of Poitier’s fine acting but also because it was released when juvenile delinquency Juvenile delinquency was attracting nationwide attention. The confused and angry teenager was appearing in other films of the day, most notably the 1955 James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause. Poitier played a character with whom millions of young Americans, black and white, could identify. The pulsating rhythms of Bill Haley and His Comets’ version of “Rock Around the Clock,” "Rock Around the Clock" (Freedman and Myers)[Rock Around the Clock] included as background music, made the film unforgettable.

The furor over The Blackboard Jungle made agents and directors aware of Poitier. An aggressive new agent found Poitier a role in the television play A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. Man Is Ten Feet Tall, A (Aurthur) In this play, and in the film version, Edge of the City Edge of the City (Ritt) (1957), a black dockworker dies defending a white coworker against a bullying white foreman. In The Defiant Ones, Defiant Ones, The (Kramer) a big hit of 1958, Poitier played one of two escaped convicts—one black, the other (played by Tony Curtis) white—who come to depend on each other during their flight from the law. At the film’s end, the black prisoner forgoes a chance to avoid recapture when his white partner cannot join him. After 1958, Poitier played in at least one film a year for an entire decade.

Later films included A Raisin in the Sun (1961), about a struggling Chicago African American family; the Oscar-winning movie Lilies of the Field Lilies of the Field (Nelson) (1963), in which a wandering African American handyman helps German nuns in the Southwest to build a chapel; and A Patch of Blue Patch of Blue, A (Green) (1965), in which an African American journalist befriends a poor, blind white girl. In 1967, Poitier was in three hits. In the Heat of the Night In the Heat of the Night (Jewison) showed a bigoted Southern white sheriff coming to respect the Northern African American detective who helps him to crack a murder case; in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Kramer)[Guess Whos Coming to Dinner] a wealthy white newspaper publisher is shocked to learn that his daughter plans to marry an African American man but eventually approves the match; and in To Sir, with Love, To Sir, with Love (Clavell) an African American London schoolteacher wins his white pupils’ respect. From 1968 on, Poitier’s near-monopoly was broken, as more African American actors (some playing in violence-filled “blaxploitation” films) made their way in films. As these actors learned how to become leading men, they continued to look to Poitier as an exemplar both on and off the screen.

Significance

As late as the 1930’s, most Hollywood films portrayed African Americans as buffoons, servants, athletes, dancers, or musicians. World War II made white filmmakers more sensitive to racial injustice; some began to produce films treating racial issues more openly and giving African Americans a more dignified screen image. Stanley Kramer Kramer, Stanley , who brought out Home of the Brave (1949), about a troubled African American war veteran, directed Poitier in the racial “message” movies The Defiant Ones, Pressure Point (1962), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. From the appearance of The Blackboard Jungle in 1955 onward, Poitier benefited from this trend toward fairer treatment of African Americans on the screen; he also did much himself to promote the trend.

In only one post-1955 film, a 1959 remake of Porgy and Bess, Porgy and Bess (Preminger) did Poitier play an obviously stereotypical role. In most films, Poitier’s screen persona was that of a competent, likable man who channels whatever racial resentments he has into productive activity, helping whites who are either no smarter than he is or are his intellectual or moral inferiors. In No Way Out, the African American intern played by Poitier is almost saintly; his white accuser (and later patient) is a small-time crook. Although the racial issue is muted in Lilies of the Field, its hero’s efficiency is a clear refutation of stereotypes of African American incompetence. In In the Heat of the Night, the intellectual superiority of Poitier’s character to the redneck sheriff played by Rod Steiger is obvious. Even in The Blackboard Jungle, the troubled youth played by Poitier is intelligent and salvageable; the incorrigible school bully who attacks Dadier with a knife is played by white actor Vic Morrow.

In many films (although not in The Blackboard Jungle), Poitier presents an image of a well-trained, professional African American who is articulate in standard English; this was new for the time. In No Way Out, he plays a medical intern; in All the Young Men (1960), an officer commanding white troops in the Korean War; in the suspense drama The Slender Thread (1965), a suicide hotline worker; in Pressure Point, a prison psychiatrist who interrogates a Nazi; in A Patch of Blue and The Bedford Incident (1965), a journalist; and in To Sir, with Love, a teacher. Poitier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a young white woman’s fiancé, is a world-famous physician.

In two films, Poitier crossed a barrier by playing roles originally designed for whites. In The Bedford Incident, he is a journalist trapped in a submarine with a trigger-happy anti-Soviet zealot of a commander (Richard Widmark). In Duel at Diablo (1966), Poitier portrays a cowboy gunfighter.

One barrier was hard to break: that of portraying an African American man, on the screen, as both sexual and romantic. In No Way Out, Poitier’s character is happily married; in his other films up to 1965, including The Blackboard Jungle, Poitier’s characters have no love interest at all. In A Patch of Blue, Poitier’s character ends a budding love interest by having the blind white girl sent away to a special school. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, viewers catch only a brief glimpse, through the rearview mirror of a taxicab, of a kiss exchanged between Poitier’s character and his white fiancée; the couple leaves the country shortly after their marriage. The man upon whom Poitier’s character in To Sir, with Love was based had had an interracial romance with a fellow teacher, but the romance was omitted from the film. A frank interracial love scene occurs in The Lost Man Lost Man, The (Aurthur) (1969), but that film failed. For Love of Ivy (1968) was the first film in which Poitier had a frankly sexual romance (with bedroom scene) with an African American woman.

After the release of Edge of the City and The Defiant Ones, Poitier came to symbolize for many moviegoers the dream of interracial harmony. Six feet, two inches tall, he was considered handsome by blacks and whites alike. To many African Americans eager to see one of their own in dignified roles on the silver screen, Poitier’s success seemed a confirmation of their faith in a fairer and more racially integrated future. For, while other black actors had played nonstereotypical roles on film before, none had had Poitier’s staying power or drawing power.

If Poitier shunned the old stereotype of the African American as servile buffoon, he was slow to adopt the newer stereotype of the African American as revolutionary. While the racial angle in The Blackboard Jungle is not ignored, Poitier’s Gregory Miller is more a rebellious youth than a rebellious African American. The militant played by Poitier in Buck and the Preacher is safely remote in time (the 1870’s); the militants he plays in Something of Value (1957) and The Mark of the Hawk (1958) are safely remote in space (British colonial Africa). When, in The Lost Man, Poitier did play a violent militant in modern urban America, the film failed financially. Poitier’s reluctance to play militants on screen, a reluctance that alienated some blacks in the late 1960’s, reflected a need to make films palatable to white viewers.

The question of to what extent Poitier promoted black progress in American films, and in America as a whole, is hard to answer. Having made progress himself, Poitier opened a path for others. From 1969 onward, he pushed to get blacks hired on film-crew jobs for his films. Poitier’s example encouraged younger African American actors such as James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Danny Glover to try for success in Hollywood. Decades after Poitier rose to stardom, however, blacks were still struggling to achieve equal opportunities in American films, albeit with increasing success. Hollywood studio system;African Americans in Blackboard Jungle, The (Brooks) Hollywood studio system;stardom African Americans;performers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergman, Carol. Sidney Poitier. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Concise and richly illustrated; one of few easily available Poitier biographies. Written for young adults; useful for general readers of all ages. Provides details on Poitier’s early life and his struggles in the early years. Attention paid to individual films varies. List of films, chronology, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 1989. This survey discusses (among other things) Poitier’s role in The Blackboard Jungle and his career as a whole. Offers insights into why Poitier succeeded while other black screen actors of the post-World War II years failed. Sees Poitier’s characters as confirming some stereotypes while refuting others. Photographs; index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cripps, Thomas. “The Dark Spot in the Kaleidoscope: Black Images in American Film.” In The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups, edited by Randall M. Miller. Englewood, N.J.: Jerome S. Ozer, 1980. An interesting comparison of Poitier to Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., and 1930’s film comic Stepin Fetchit. Sees Poitier playing a helper of whites, even in The Blackboard Jungle; as embodying a “culture of professionalism” spanning the racial divide; and as benefiting from Hollywood’s post-World War II “conscience liberalism.” Photographs, notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goudsouzian, Aram. Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Scholarly study of the actor, constituting both a biography and an analysis of Poitier’s importance to American cinema and culture. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leab, Daniel J. From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. This survey places Poitier’s career in the context of Hollywood’s well-meaning efforts to correct demeaning racial stereotypes. Sees Poitier as creating a new stereotype, the “ebony saint.” Stresses the importance of The Blackboard Jungle as a turning point in Poitier’s career. Photographs, endnotes, index, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poitier, Sidney. This Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. This autobiography, toughly realist in outlook, is peppered with salty language. Contains details on both private and public life. Provides a detailed account of how Poitier got the role in The Blackboard Jungle and of the problems caused by his associations with left-wing entertainers. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000. Poitier’s second autobiography retells his life story from the point of view of its spiritual lessons and his personal faith. Comparing the two books reveals the extent of the actor’s growth over the intervening twenty years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zinman, David H. “The Blackboard Jungle (1955).” In Fifty from the Fifties: Vintage Films from America’s Mid-Century. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1979. Presents a detailed plot summary and photographs of scenes from the film. Provides interesting information, gleaned from The New York Times, on contemporary reaction to the film. List of film credits, including full cast of characters and names of performers, index of actors and film titles, and a selected bibliography.

Stormy Weather Offers New Film Roles to African Americans

Categories: History Content