The first Sidney Poitier film I ever saw was the Oscar-winning 1967 thriller “In The Heat of The Night,” about a Black detective from Philadelphia who gets waylaid in a Mississippi town and teams up with a reactionary white police chief (Rod Steiger) to solve a murder. I was 14 years old at the time. It was a movie day in one of my classes at school. I wasn't particularly excited to see the movie, but lo and behold, I loved it.
And the thing that stuck with me, more than anything else, was the slap.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the moment. Poitier’s Detective Virgil Tibbs and Steiger’s Chief Bill Gillespie visit the home of a white plantation owner named Endicott (Larry Gates), to question him. When Endicott realizes Tibbs is treating him as a suspect, he’s so offended that he slaps him.
Tibbs slaps him right back. Then he glares at him.
Endicott is shocked to his core. “There was a time,” he says, holding a hand to his face, “I could have had you shot.”
That scene floored me. I remember feeling the power of it, in and of itself—and even more so, the power of Poitier.
Growing up, I found Poitier to be an aspirational figure—a black Superman, not in physical prowess, but in symbology. He represented hope throughout his career. Poitier had an ability to be so matter of fact about his station in life, about his own regality. It seemed to me that Poitier wore that regality lightly, and that was the key—the thing that that made him so beloved, and that, for a few moments or hours on screen, crumbled the realities for Black people in America.
Poitier’s characters rarely got violent but when they did, the impact was overwhelming: a small event made larger because he so rarely went there. These parceled-out acts of defiance even by today's standards stand tall, because Poitier was so sincere about them. He didn't at all “play” them. When he gets into a tussle with Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer's "The Defiant Ones," it's so natural, so seamless, as if it’s the only way it could’ve been, despite all the ways it wasn't for so many Black men back then.
The Slap happened at the absolute peak of Poitier’s pop culture prominence, at a time when he was being praised by many for his trailblazer status and criticized by others for being too safe.
The Slap was the moment when Poitier’s image and career trajectory changed. And the possibilities for Black artists in the mainstream changed with it.
Now to be clear, there were always Black men who would step up, men who would challenge or fight with authority, men who would leap at the opportunity to assert their inherent humanity. But Poitier reached those who were not exceptions, those who needed to see a possibility of transcendence in an art form that more often excluded or caricatured them. He made viewers want to aspire to give themselves the same freedom Poitier exemplified: freedom to seek, to create, to fight.
I never found Poitier to be particularly exciting as an actor. His roles were far too engineered by the imaginations of white folks. The characters’ emotions and expressions felt just south of curation. But his performances were still heroic and liberating, and had an immersive power. The 1961 screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play that wouldn’t have existed without Poitier’s clout as a star and producer, is a prime example. He plays the striving father of a working class family trying to survive and own a home despite the oppression of white society. If Poitier was playing the angry Black man, he often did it in roles like that one. His characters were not vicious or threatening. He never thrived as a true blue tough guy in the manner of an Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart.
And he couldn’t have. When Poitier was coming up in the 1950s—alongside his friend, musician-actor Harry Belafonte, who had similar energy, and was often slotted into Poitier-type roles—there was no way a Black man could have been accepted on screen in a role like that. It wasn’t really even possible until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a more revolutionary spirit took hold in American society, and Black stars like Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Yaphet Kotto, and Melvin Van Peebles walked the road that Poitier built.
Poitier’s anger never popped without necessity. Poitier’s anger was defensive. It was rooted in dignity, not in the performance of cruelty. A Poitier character may not throw the first punch, but he was going to throw the last.
That particular quality is what made Poitier exactly right to be a trailblazer. It was what allowed him to be The First.
One of Poitier’s key predecessors, Paul Robeson, had already proved that America would not permit The First to be a man who could be seen as vicious, capable of cruelty, willing to knock you on your ass or through a wall because you looked at him wrong. Robeson's run-ins with McCarthyism and Hollywood's racist casting saw to that. Poitier wasn’t going to be inoffensive, but he also wasn’t looking to offend. Onscreen and off, Poitier's politics were the filed-down claws of respectability, of what the negro could aspire to. He radiated a reserved willingness to shape himself into a man that represented the finest ideals of an America that did not exist. He would do that by being the kind of negro that aspired to seen as an equal and would ask that other negroes do the same.
In his movies and in his life, Poitier obliterated barriers both metaphorical and physical. He snapped chains with Tony Curtis that extended offscreen and showed the world new possibilities for telling Black stories, and when he had finally built up enough power in the industry, by earning multiple Oscar nominations and one win (for 1963’s "Lilies of the Field") and claiming the title of number one male box office star in America (for 1967, a year in which he had three hit films; perhaps not coincidentally, the year of The Slap), he rolled it over, and made sincere efforts in the 1970s and ‘80s as a producer, director, and actor to bring Black stories never before seen to the screen. As a director, Poitier made Westerns (“Buck and the Preacher”), love stories (“A Warm December,”), dance movies (“Fast Forward”), and comedies (“Stir Crazy”). His extraordinary beauty as a Black screen presence helped us recognize our own beauty as something identifiably good (although it didn’t become an object of lust or passion until Poitier had creative control of the work).
The function of many of the roles Poitier took in the first two decades of his career was to to help racist whites see the error of their ways, by projecting a mix of genuineness and resolve that could not be denied by any human watching him. Poitier could be believable as an acceptable date for white women on the screen, just as he could in real life: it’s depressing to even have to cite that as a challenge, but Poitier met it on both fronts, and his achievement is not meaningless. Poitier also made it credible that a Black man could turn racists around and secure their respect. Of course, in real life it doesn't work that way. But Poitier sold it. And one need only look at the more daring and troubling Black screen stars who followed Poitier to understand that there was a point to it all.
He put Black pain and anger onto the screen in a way that made it powerful and truthful, but also palatable for white people. That made Poitier an object of suspicion and derision in some quarters, but it is also a great achievement, and a part of his legacy. Trailblazing in a world that hates you is a uniquely difficult job. Look at Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Hattie McDaniel, or Butterfly McQueen. You have to be a porridge that is just right. Poitier was just right. He didn't seem like a tap dancer for white folks, nor a Malcolm X-type firebrand, but you're never going to get to the point where an art form can regularly cast Black actors as fierce and dangerous characters if a Sidney Poitier doesn’t exist first.