One of the ironies of the great actor‘s death is how so many progressives/leftists are posting to their social media this late-1960s interview, in which Poitier expresses frustration with the fact that the media are only asking him questions about his race. They are posting it as a criticism – as in, “How terrible! He was not viewed as a man, but only as a black man!” – seemingly unaware of the fact that they only ever want people to talk about their race.
Poitier was indeed the first black actor to win an Oscar, and there is nothing wrong with remembering that about him. Above all, though, he was an actor and for a time, a huge box office draw. In 1967 alone he made three extraordinary movies – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love and In the Heat of the Night. I adore the first two, of course, but I want to focus on In the Heat of the Night: it was certainly Rod Steiger’s best role, but it is the last scene of the movie that, for me, is most noteworthy. Imagine the same film made in today’s climate – the ending would include either a grovelling apology from Steiger about the wrongness of his ways, or an acknowledgement of his white privilege, or a hug between the two men, or all of the above. Now watch this scene – that wonderful “You take care. You hear?” The smiles from Poitier and Steiger. Real respect has developed. And so perfectly acted.