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Sidney Poitier set the template for Barack Obama’s rise

How the late actor’s characters and style made the future president politically appealing

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier during ceremonies in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Aug. 12, 2009. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In 2003, when Barack Obama was still an underdog candidate for the U.S. Senate, his campaign manager Jim Cauley ran a focus group with well-to-do women from Chicago’s North Shore. If Obama had any chance to win, he needed these liberal White voters. His staff showed pictures of the candidates and asked the group for their impressions. What did they think when they saw Obama? “Sidney Poitier,” answered one woman.

The moment struck Cauley. Obama was the rare Black politician with genuine appeal across race lines. “This,” he thought, “was real.”

Poitier, who died Friday at age 94, had a legendary career and a deep impact. As the sole Black actor who consistently won leading roles in the 1950s and 1960s, he became an icon of racial integration. His characters always helped his White co-stars, and they rarely used violence or expressed sexuality. Poitier infused those roles with dignity and pride.

Winning over both White and Black audiences in the civil rights era was a political minefield, and Poitier tiptoed through it with grace. He lent a model of contained charisma for Black Americans in the spotlight, including a future president of the United States.

When Poitier first achieved stardom in the 1950s, with sizzling roles in “Blackboard Jungle” and “The Defiant Ones,” he had a cutting-edge image. His sharp, virtuous characters transcended the lazy, goofy stereotype of Stepin Fetchit, a comic Black actor who played shuffling sidekicks in the 1930s. In 1964, he won best actor at the Academy Awards for “Lilies of the Field,” playing a solitary handyman who builds a chapel for some nuns. He was generous and charming, devoid of any racial baggage. How could White audiences resist him? The Oscar represented a liberal moment of interracial goodwill.

In 1967, Poitier starred in the blockbuster hits “To Sir, With Love” and “In the Heat of the Night,” which arrived in the wake of racial unrest in cities such as Newark and Detroit. Still playing characters of intelligence and decency, Poitier seemed to implicitly reassure audiences that interracial harmony was possible, that Black people were good, that the nation’s racial sins still could be forgiven.

As the actor got more popular, the complaints grew louder, however. “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” asked a New York Times headline. Increasingly, film critics and Black intellectuals protested that he didn’t express a genuine Black humanity. His characters were so contained and polished and righteous that he had become a one-man stereotype.

Then came “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Premiering in late 1967, it revolved around a liberal White couple, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who ultimately endorse their daughter’s marriage to a Black man. This film especially exaggerated the attributes associated with Poitier. His character, John Prentice, was a world-renowned doctor who completely deferred to his bride’s parents. He even avoided sex with his fiancee until he has their blessing. Newsweek called him a “composite Schweitzer, [Jonas] Salk and [Jesus] Christ.”

“Guess” inflated every aspect of Poitier’s complicated stardom. It was another No. 1 hit, drawing plaudits from White audiences despite the Supreme Court only legalizing interracial marriage everywhere in the United States that same June. Yet, Poitier also absorbed more censure for playing a liberal fantasy of a Black man. Critics rolled their eyes at his cartoonish perfection and his supplication to the White parents. James Baldwin wrote that the film offered nothing to Black people: “They felt that Sidney was, in effect, being used against them.”

Soon came the gritty “blaxploitation” movies like “Shaft” and “Superfly.” The Black heroes in these films reversed the Poitier icon: They had ghetto style, lashed out in violence and left a trail of sexual conquests. Though he kept acting and moved into directing, Poitier’s heyday was over.

Yet Poitier’s icon had enduring resonance. His movie roles blunted Black anger and sexuality, but they also built bridges across America’s racial chasms. Four decades later, Obama did the same kind of bridge-building with liberal White voters. With some distance from the passions of the Black Power era, he could trade on a more positive association of Poitier — a Black man of accomplishment and restraint, assuring some kind of racial redemption.

Poitier also had a more direct impact on Obama’s life from its very beginnings. In 1959, the actor helped fund the African American Students Association, which provided the scholarship program that allowed Obama’s father to attend the University of Hawaii, where he met Obama’s White mother, Ann Dunham. Their interracial marriage made a Poitier movie part of the family narrative. “Have you ever seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?' ” Ann’s father used to ask. “Well, I lived it.”

The Poitier and Obama stories ran along parallel tracks. Poitier was born in the Bahamas, and Obama had a Kenyan father and White mother, yet both represented African Americans. Their distinct backgrounds shielded them from some harmful stereotypes about Black Americans.

Obama absorbed a version of Black identity from Poitier. After his father returned to Kenya, his mother fed him a diet of picture-perfect Black excellence in books, records and movies. In her telling, he recalled, “Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne.” If Obama later understood the limitations of this narrative, his political career traded on this version of civil rights history.

Obama’s political persona drew from Poitier’s precise, contained image that disarmed racial anxieties. Like Poitier, Obama appeared cool and measured, a man of impeccable qualifications, a safe vehicle for interracial unity. And pundits noticed the echoes.

In 2004, Don Terry reported in the Chicago Tribune that White supporters kept saying that Obama transcended race, which implied negative assumptions about “regular” Black people. Terry recalled watching “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” John Prentice — “a super-qualified, super-handsome, super-dashing doctor living in Hawaii” — had to be absurdly exceptional just to attract a White woman and win her parents’ favor. “As I watched,” wrote Terry, “I realized that Barack Obama and John Prentice have a lot in common.”

During the 2008 campaign, as Obama’s popularity surged, liberal commentators made the same connections, adding doses of optimism. The Guardian noted the distance from the politically charged 1960s: “The Poitier model — composure, smarts, quiet authority — suddenly makes a lot of sense.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott argued that pop culture encouraged Obama’s election by providing “fantasies of black heroism”: forthright leaders, father figures and forgiving saviors in the mold of Sidney Poitier.

Conservatives also interpreted Obama through the prism of Poitier, but with more skepticism. One right-wing blog griped about Obama’s appeal in a discussion titled “The Return of Sidney Poitier.” In his book “A Bound Man,” conservative intellectual Shelby Steele placed Poitier and Obama within the tradition of the “bargainer,” the Black figure who treats Whites with grace and understanding, yet fails to emphasize Black victimhood, and thus struggles to wholly represent African Americans.

Obama, of course, had to be more than a polished, accomplished, forgiving racial outsider to reach the Oval Office. But his political style owed a debt to Poitier. In 2009, he bestowed the actor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “In front of Black and White audiences struggling to right the nation’s moral compass, Sidney Poitier brought us the common tragedy of racism, the inspiring possibility of reconciliation, and the simple joys of everyday life,” intoned Obama. “Ultimately, the man would mirror the character, and both would advance the nation’s dialogue on race and respect.”

Poitier stared ahead, standing erect, stoic. When Obama slipped the medal around his neck, however, he hinted at a smile, and he shared a look with the president. Then they hugged, rocking back-and-forth, holding on for a half-minute, bound by their intertwined roles in American history.