Updated: Jul 20, 2022
As a child in the all-white sundowner town of Edmond, Oklahoma, RFK was my role model, but Sidney Poitier was my hero. The way he carried himself in every role, with dignity, courage, and humanity, the way he demanded respect as a black man and actor in the chaotic 1960’s, all those things elevated him above those sharing the big screen with him. His role choices were the same: characters often struggling with their identity, but refusing to be degraded or stereotyped as “lesser than” by racist America.
In Edmond, movies cost twenty-five cents for kids 12 and under, but as a poor family with six kids being raised on a teacher’s salary, we could only afford to go to one movie a month. Yet somehow, I managed to see A Patch of Blue in 1965, Duel at Diablo in 1966, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir With Love, and In the Heat of the Night, incredibly, all released in 1967, at the Bronco Theater in downtown Edmond. Apparently Edmond allowed movies with a black leading actor to be shown locally before they allowed black citizens to live in their racist community.
Years later, I would watch his earlier films on late night TV, including one of his more obscure movies, Pressure Point, that became a personal favorite after watching it with my father late one night. We screened that one at our bar/art gallery/music venue Paseo Junction in Oklahoma City in 1977 on Movie Night, using a loud, clanky, unstable rented movie projector and a sheet hung over the glass block windows to project the images of Poitier as a prison psychologist and singer Bobby Darin in a very out of character role as a American Nazi inmate. The tension between those two actors was so heavy and intense that it was nearly impossible to exhale through the entire movie. (If you haven’t seen that one, find it and watch it!) To this day, my three favorite Poitier films are In the Heat of the Night, Duel at Diablo (where he was one of the first to portray a black cowboy on film), and Pressure Point.
But today, the world lost someone who elevated humanity to new heights, who lived a life as proud as the roles he played, who was a personal hero and a national treasure. Rest in Peace, Sidney Poitier.