In this story Subhadeep Banerjee discusses the life and achievements of an African American actor who has allured the author all throughout his life. It was his first death anniversary on the 6th of January. Who is the actor? To know read the story.
What is your all-time favorite Hollywood movie dialogue?
I can surely remember mine! It is one short five-word sentence spoken on the silver screen with grit, determination, and sheer audacity in the face of certain adversity. Let me share some trivia about this dialogue with you. It features at number 16 on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes – a rare collection of the best hundred Hollywood movie dialogues ever. In case you are already on your way to Google the list and look for what am I talking about, please hang on one moment.
This isn’t about that dialogue only but more about the man who said it on screen. He became one of the most celebrated faces of Classic Hollywood – a man who was the first African American to be awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964. He also went on to receive the Academy Award in the lifetime achievement category in the year 2001 for his outstanding contribution to cinema. He was also a fine ambassador of the colored people in America; about their struggles, contributions, and success stories. Recently, on the 6th of January 2023, we observed his first death anniversary. In case you haven’t guessed it yet, let me share with you his name – he is none other than the legendary actor Sidney Poitier (KBE). Sidney Poitier was of Bahamian origin and was born in Miami Florida on 20th February 1927. He lived in the Bahamas till the age of fifteen after which he emigrated to the USA. Some of his best-known movies are To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Lilies of the Field, and A Patch of Blue, among many others.
What were the most distinctive characteristics of Poitier’s style and performance that made him stand out? For instance, let us look into his portrayal of police detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. In the racially biased southern US town of Sparta, a rich white man is killed and unfortunately, Poitier is picked up from the train station as a suspect and brought before the local police chief Gillespie. While the overbearing chief is convinced of his direct involvement in the murder, Tibbs looks cool, confident, and unruffled by what just happened to him. It was as if he had a trick up his sleeve unknown to the bungling cops around him. His answers to his captor were straight and to the point filled with raw courage and composure despite mindless and baseless accusations of murder flying thick and fast. The moment when he declares authoritatively “I AM A POLICE OFFICER” and displays his police ID to an astonished Gillespie, remains in my mind as one of Hollywood’s most iconic on-screen clash of personalities leading to the triumph of the defiant and self-assured one. In a similar vein, later in the movie when the prejudiced Gillespie mocks Tibbs over his first name ‘Virgil’ and tries to inquire as to how his colleagues in Philadelphia dealt with it, Poitier thunders out “They call me Mister Tibbs!“. This, to my mind, is one of the finest depictions of a man who knew how to stand his ground and remind his opponent that to earn respect one has to learn to give the same and be able to hold all people equally irrespective of any biological differences. Yes, it is this dialogue that enjoys a pride of place at number 16 in the AFI’s list mentioned above. And, if ever there was a good example of natural justice, In the Heat of the Night depicts it beautifully when the murder mystery is ultimately unraveled by the unbiased black detective Virgil Tibbs and even Gillespie is forced to grudgingly accept his superior policing skills and qualities. While one might be tempted to think that story writers and screenplay writers are the real heroes since they compose the dialogues and sequence of events, we need to remember that it was actors like Sidney Poitier who infused life into the characters and situations. And, his powerful and appropriate portrayal of a capable man put in a wrong situation who does his best to outsmart his opponents and yet be completely sincere to his profession, naturally made him any screenwriter’s delight.
Sidney Poitier was not just limited to an odd success here and there or typecast into only some kinds of roles. He was an acting virtuoso and through his versatile performances in some of his other movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir With Love, he has shown that when it came to being a leading man of Hollywood, he was up there with the very best of his times. Be it the softness of his voice in a romantic role, the politeness of his speech when speaking to an elder character, or in the firmness of his tone in a defining movie moment, or even through the glare of his eyes and his overall swag, the actor Sidney Poitier kept reminding his viewers about his virtuosity and capabilities. As an audience, for me it has been an honor and an education in artistic refinement, to watch him act in a plethora of roles he has performed over time.
As we complete a little over one year of his passing away, in my concluding remarks I may only say the greatness of an actor like Sidney Poitier is immeasurable and his legacy is wholly worth celebrating and commemorating. The curtains shall truly never come down on his artistic achievements and will continue to inspire a new generation of writers, actors, thinkers, and humanists.
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Subhadeep is a scientist by profession, who also has a flair for creative writing. He is an associate professor of chemistry at BITS PILANI Goa. His debut historical fiction novel THE HIDDEN PATRIOT is available on amazon and has been well-received and reviewed positively by readers.