The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidney Poitier was an icon of racial reassurance. But his genius lay in his rage.

Sidney Poitier as homicide detective Virgil Tibbs in “In the Heat of the Night.” (Mirisch/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Placeholder while article actions load

“They call me Mister Tibbs!”

Those five words electrified audiences in 1967, when, in the crime procedural “In the Heat of the Night,” Sidney Poitier’s Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs schooled a Mississippi police chief, played by Rod Steiger, who had just casually called him by a racial epithet.

Black viewers in particular erupted into approving whoops at Poitier’s ice-cold delivery of the line, and again later when Tibbs slaps a racist businessman. These scenes would become two of the most iconic moments of Poitier’s extraordinary run during the late 1950s and 1960s, starting with his starring roles in “The Defiant Ones” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” and ending with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which he played John Prentice, an African American doctor who has proposed marriage to the daughter of prominent San Francisco liberals played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Sidney Poitier gave Black Americans a reason to fall in love with movies

Throughout that decade, Poitier, who died Thursday at 94, cultivated a persona of quiet, self-confident authority and classic style. He became the first Black man to win an Oscar for best actor, for his portrayal of an easygoing handyman who befriends a group of nuns in 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”; months later, Martin Luther King Jr. would accept the Nobel Peace Prize, making them twin symbols of Black excellence.

Ever conscious of his cultural power, Poitier went out of his way to select roles that would help Hollywood break out of the toxic tradition of African American actors being relegated to roles as servants, musicians and degrading comic relief. In “The Slender Thread,” he took on the race-neutral role of a crisis-hotline volunteer. “A Patch of Blue” (1965), in which he played a man who befriends a blind White girl, and “To Sir, With Love” (1967), in which he played a teacher in a White working-class London school, were both parables of racial healing and mutual understanding.

How Sidney Poitier changed Americans’ perception of Blackness

As the White daughter of a physician growing up in Iowa, I gravitated to “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which I was too young to see in theaters, but which sparked my imagination nonetheless. After seeing the film, most likely on TV, I distinctly remember asking my mother, from the back seat of our Ford Falcon, how she and my father would feel if I decided to marry a Black man. Her answer, worthy of Hepburn herself, was that if we loved each other, that would be all that mattered.

It’s just that sense of comfort — the sense of normalization and permission — that Poitier represented as a bridging cultural figure in the 1960s. When I watch “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” today, I see it through a different lens, more painfully aware of its uncritical embrace of respectability politics, wherein Black people — especially Black men — have to be paragons of perfection to be considered worthy of claiming social space. Although Poitier is at his usual elegant and understated best, it’s Tracy and Hepburn who get the most noble speeches about tolerance and White uplift.

Something else is going on in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which animates Poitier’s genius in all of his best work: a ripple of tension, a “Call me Mister Tibbs” anger that can be detected just under the surface of even his most benign encounters. It’s there when he’s being called “the problem” by a benevolent Catholic priest or when he’s being condescended to by his future father-in-law. Decades before we had words and phrases such as “microaggression,” “unconscious bias” and “White fragility,” Poitier was eloquently conveying the psychic toll on Black people, not just from the most visible and egregious structures of racism, but also from constantly having to manage White anxieties, expectations and self-protecting ignorance.

Sidney Poitier changed the Oscars in 1964. The academy is still grappling with the promise of that moment.

He expressed that reality — the frustration, the anger, the bone-deep weariness — not just by way of subtle facial reactions, but also through a tightly coiled physicality suggesting that, no matter how tactfully his characters were navigating a racist society, its depredations were not going unnoticed. They were being registered, one by one, on a body that moved with a dancer’s grace and a boxer’s defensive skill.

If the Marvel cinematic universe had existed in the 1960s, Poitier might have made a perfect Hulk: Like that fictional hero, his superpower was to stay angry, even at his most relatable. Poitier is understandably being celebrated as an icon of cinematic representation and reassurance. But we ignore at our peril the fact that those values coexisted with a rage that feels as palpable and galvanizing today as it did half a century ago.