They call him Mr Poitier
Way back around 1989, I was a misfit of a teenager trying on ‘kidulthood’ for size. One day I sat in my family homes living room in London — and watched Sidney Poitier in the film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.
As I watched, something shifted inside my DNA.
I believe I was the only one paying attention to the film, or perhaps more accurately — I felt so captivated by Sidney Poitier that I alone was transported to another world, somewhere far away from home. Perhaps, across the Atlantic.
Ever since that day, I fell in awe of Sidney Poitier.
Like falling in love, without the strings of lust attached. Watching him move across the screen, I was hypnotised. This leading man, with his stature — his charisma — his diction — his presence — his Blackness. At a time when my heart ached with a need to redefine my world, in particular my warped interpretations of a man. Sidney Poitier stepped into my spotlight, and soothed my soul.
I felt empowered, elevated by his essence. He gave me that feeling that I had happened across something so good. He was a gift. He was poetry.
Over the years, I made it my business to familiarise myself with his work as an actor and his life as a man. From watching interviews and reading articles, his integrity as a human being — was a quality that shone through.
When I found out that back in 1964, he had become the first Black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the film Lilies of the Field. I made sure to watch the clip of him receiving the award, many times over. His joy was heartfelt, my pride swelled.
In his legendary portrayal of Virgil Tibbs in the classic film In The Heat of The Night — that ‘slap back’ scene (that alone was Oscar worthy, how he never won is a travesty), as well as the birthing of the now infamous quote “They call me, Mr Tibbs.” — Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs.
Further cemented his status to me, as an icon.
In 2002, I watched the Oscars live to witness Denzel Washington introduce and present Sidney Poitier with an honorary award. In the midst of his introduction, Denzel uttered the immortal words “They call him, Sidney Poitier.” — Denzel Washington.
Then, there he was.
Sidney Poitier took to the stage with the soundtrack to In The Heat of The Night playing in the background, entering the spotlight one more time at the close of his illustrious career. His acceptance speech was proof again indeed, of ‘The Measure of a Man’.
I was flooded with pride and admiration, and fell in awe — all over again. An unforgettable few moments in time.
The fact is, I fall in awe every time I watch Sidney Poitier or read about him.
Long since retired, Sidney Poitier (i’m convinced) continues privately to live a life well lived. But I, and i’m sure countless others across the world, have not forgotten the impact of his contribution to Film, Entertainment and Humanity.
Which brings me to last night, I watched Oprah Winfrey give a moving acceptance speech upon receiving the Cecil B. De Mille award at the Golden Globes. This is an award that Sidney Poitier had received in 1982, it is given in honour of a lifetime of outstanding contribution to Entertainment.
It was a soul stirring speech throughout, highlighting many people and movements worthy of a platform.
But, the truth is — she had me with the following opening lines:
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mothers house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th academy awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history ‘the winner is Sidney Poitier’. Up to the stage, came the most elegant man I had ever seen — I remember his tie was white and of course his skin was Black and I’d never seen a Black man being celebrated like that. And I have tried many many many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl — a kid watching from the cheap seats, as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other peoples houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidneys performance in Lillies of the Field…Amen, Amen — Amen, Amen.” — Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah got it, she knew what it felt like to look up to somebody in that way. Once more, I was back there in 1989 falling in awe of Sidney Poitier.
So many of the people iv’e come to admire in my life, passed on long before I came to understand just what they would mean to me. Still, I choose to celebrate them and shine a spotlight on them whenever I get the chance. Knowing just how fleeting our time can be in the Universe — I hope to remain mindful enough to keep celebrating my life, and the lives of all those I love and admire.
Without hesitation, I adore Sidney Poitier and I celebrate him and what he has come to epitomise. Whilst we may have the Atlantic ocean between us — right now, we breathe the same air and look up at the same sky.
I would like to do away with geography and extend a dinner invitation to Mr Poitier, so maybe just maybe — one day I could say to my two sons “guess who’s coming to dinner.”
Disclaimer: The term ‘kidulthood’ is borrowed from the title of a 2006 British Film, directed by Menhaj Huda and written by Noel Clarke.
The term ‘Measure of a Man’ is taken from the title of Sidney Poitiers memoir first published in 2000.