Emory film professor explores legacy and film career of the late Sidney Poitier

sidney poitier
Sidney Poitier was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best lead performance. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

The legendary actor Sidney Poitier died on Jan. 6th at 94, and tributes to his remarkable accomplishments in film continue to pour out. Among his life’s many landmarks, Poitier was the first Black performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963. He once said he felt “as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made.” Professor Nsenga Burton teaches film and media studies at Emory University and joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to discuss Poitier’s film career highlights and extraordinary legacy.

Selected insights on the films of Sidney Poitier:

Paris Blues” (1961) – “I like it because it really does show Sidney Poitier in a kind of complicated character. He received lots of criticism over his career regarding his very stoic and respectable representations, and so I think in this movie, he does that, but he also really challenges this whole idea of the types of characters that he plays because the character that he plays in this particular film is definitely self-serving, is definitely part of a subculture, I guess you could say — because he’s a jazz musician in Paris … It’s just a very interesting look at what it means to be Black, globally Black.”

“People talk about Sidney Poitier, like, ‘Oh, he’s the first Black man to kiss a white woman in a film.’ Well, he kissed her on the cheek. But to show Black people in love or having any type of affection onscreen in Hollywood was not happening. So he’s also groundbreaking in that way … and with Black women, too,” said Burton.

For Love of Ivy” (1968) – “‘I think this is at a time when movies were made, and the idea of you having sex with someone meant that there was going to be more afterwards, right? So you were going to be together, or you were going to be married … He and Abby Lincoln are still constrained because of the representation, the historical representation of Black men and women in relationships on film, particularly in Hollywood,” said Burton. “So I think they have to be careful about how they showed them being in love with each other, making love with each other. But I do like that we get to see the courtship. We get to see Black people, you know, doing what regular folks do.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1968) – “It seems ridiculous because we’re being revisionist, but think about 1968, right? Dr. King is assassinated. Lots of things are happening in 1968 … People are so committed to not having multiracial, interracial, Black people coming together with white people in friendship and neighborhoods to such an extent that we are assassinating our nonviolent leaders. So in the context of this, and all the other assassinations, and all the protests … the movie is groundbreaking at the time because we hadn’t seen this in films outside of independent films.”

“You hadn’t seen a Black man and a white woman be in love and pronounce that love, announce that love to their families, and be very specific about what it is they want, and not caring about what other people think,” Burton said. “This is also Sidney Poitier, who is married at the time to a white woman in real life, which is a big deal. You may recall that Sammy Davis, Jr. was uninvited to the White House by John F. Kennedy when he married a white woman. So this is a big deal.”

In the Heat of the Night” (1967) – “If you have not seen ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ you must because it’s about a so-called ‘uppity’ police officer from Philadelphia who comes down to the South, Mississippi, to investigate a case and is falsely accused, and then after he is exonerated, stays, to continue investigating the case,” said Burton. “This film is revolutionary because Sidney Poitier is really going toe-to-toe with [Larry Gates] in terms of intellect, in terms of passion, in terms of anger. And in this particular scene, he slaps him … In real life, if you were a Black person and you slapped a white person in the South, that was punishable by death.”

Note of correction: A previous version of this transcript alluded to Sidney Poitier slapping Rod Steiger’s character in “In the Heat of the Night,” when the scene actually took place between Poitier and Larry Gates.