Last week, watching CBS's highly rated miniseries "Children of the Dust," viewers cringed as one of the premier actors of American cinema lost his testicles.
And those who saw the Oscar- nominated re-release of "The Shawshank Redemption" were thrilled as another great actor found his -- figuratively speaking.
A co-worker phoned me screaming after Part One of "Dust" ended. The final, disturbing scene: Smug Klansmen standing over a wounded black frontiersman played by Sidney Poitier, flaunting the knife with which they would castrate him.
"I can't watch it!" she lamented. "I'll never know what happens in Part Two!"
She should have seen the tragedy coming -- I certainly should have. All the clues were there in the previews:
Post Civil War setting. Indian guy and white gal stirring up things by getting the hots for each other. Decent black folks in period garb exclaiming about founding "a town called Freedom!"
Whenever TV or film puts a hoop skirt on a black woman -- or shows a bunch of 19th century brothers enthusing about freedom, the Reconstruction-era F word -- you can bet the plantation that somebody will soon be swinging from a rope, or worse.
What I didn't expect was that Poitier would be the victim. For decades, Poitier was never the victim, even when folks seemed hellbent on victimizing him.
As black actors show increasing clout in mainstream cinema -- as illustrated by Morgan Freeman's best actor nomination for "Shawshank" and Samuel L. Jackson's supporting nod for "Pulp Fiction" -- no one should diminish Poitier's legacy.
If not for him, would we have Wesley Snipes as a bona fide action star ("Passenger 57" and "Demolition Man")? Or Lawrence Fishburne reveling in a spectrum of roles -- sleazy wife abuser in "What's Love Got to Do With It?"; the calmest voice in "Boyz N the Hood" and "Higher Learning"; and good-bad guys in films like "Just Cause"? Would Eddie Murphy have become the box office sensation of the '80s?
Perhaps, but Poitier paved the way for them all. He made his reputation -- and earned a 1963 best actor Oscar -- playing unbowed black men who never let racism get to them. More than any actor -- except, possibly, for TV's Bill Cosby -- Poitier slipped into white America's collective imagination, opening it to the notion of black nobility as he grew stronger and smarter with each role.
Poitier is just not the kind of guy who gets castrated. In fact, I can't think of any TV drama in which that happens to a lead character, though the act is hardly unheard of in times of war, and in our nation's racist past. So why him and why now?
Maybe Poitier had to pay for being the guy who first made people think that "well, maybe if he's the black guy coming to dinner" -- or moving in next door or catching the bad guy -- then maybe they could live with it. He got away with things no black actor had previously: standing up to outraged whites, marrying the white woman, being the chocolate- dipped Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
Even in ultimate victimhood, Poitier's maimed character in "Dust" is allowed something few black men attain in TV land -- retribution in the form of gunning down three of his white tormentors before dying in a shower of bullets.
Today Denzel Washington's innate dignity and skill best recall Poitier's persona. But Morgan Freeman may be a closer spiritual match.
Like Poitier, Freeman has irritated some by playing men whose response to racism is more reasoned than raw -- the chauffeur in "Driving Miss Daisy"; the wise Muslim sidekick in "Robin Hood." It's an attitude that ignores his breakthrough role: the Vaseline-slick pimp in 1987's "Street Smart."
In "Shawshank," the year's most satisfying film, Freeman transforms another seemingly stereotypical role: a black admitted murderer doing hard time.
Set at the fictional Shawshank facility, the story revolves around a mysterious new prisoner, a thoughtful banker (Tim Robbins, also great) and his growing friendship with Freeman. The movie beautifully explores good, evil and how the harshest prisons can get comfortable for those who pass decades within them.
Freeman's character bonds with Robbins's without making the unrealistic sacrifices often demanded by filmdom's black pals (most infamous: Poitier's voluntary return to jail for Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones," 1958).
In "The Shawshank Redemption," Freeman hasn't got much of a life, but it's his, and he pulls us into it. In his best scene, he refuses to tell the parole board what it expects to hear, instead revealing a hard and risky truth.
Thanks in part to Poitier, today's black characters needn't be noble beyond belief to make folks relate to them. And unlike his in "Dust," many get to keep their, ahem, manhood, in the process.
It's a start. But I'm ready for Hollywood to show some redemption of its own: by casting more guys like Freeman as the brainy bankers and Robbins as the convicted killers.