Tony Kendall

Back in the day when I was an impressionable young man, I didn’t have to look in further than my house and the streets that encompassed The Bottom to find people to be impressed by. But when I did look elsewhere, one of the people who always impressed me when I saw him on the large and small screen was Sidney Poitier. Even before I learned the nuances that make someone a great actor or performer, I knew there was something this man possessed that you couldn’t be helped but to be impressed by him, regardless of the role he was playing. There have always been black firsts in this country, but few carried the weight of an entire race the way Poitier had to do in Hollywood in an industry that for decades was at the forefront of presenting black people in the worst one-dimensional stereotypes while playing up every negative image that a racist moviegoing public had about almost any ethnic group, sans Native Americans and Asians. And unlike some firsts, he carried the burden with grace and aplomb. In one of his books, he wrote, “I felt very much as if I were representing 15-18 million people with every movie I made.” Like most movie fans, regardless of color, one of my favorite Poitier movies is “In The Heat of the Night,” but it’s not the scene some might think. Sure, I reacted with a loud hoop and holla the same way most black people do when they first see him backslap the old white plantation owner after he hits him and, if I close my eyes and clear my mind, I came still hear the reaction from the black people in the balcony of the old Capitol Theater in Paris. But the scene I adore and have tried to shape my controlled angry reaction to something a stupid or insensitive white person has said or done to me is the scene in which the racist Southern sheriff played by Rod Steiger asks Poitier’s about his name Virgil and what his co-workers call him at the police department he works. Chief Gillespie: “Virgil. That’s a funny name for a n----r boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?” Through gritted teeth and laser-focused eyes Poitier looks at him and snarls out, “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” That line still makes any of my days that I remember, say or live it. One thing about that movie that puzzled me for a long time was why was it filmed in Cairo, Ill., instead of further down South? My respect for the actor as a principled black man increased when I learned that because of the racial issues he had witnessed in the South as a young man and civil rights activist, for years he refused to act in any movie filmed in the South. Someone should have told him that Cairo, for all intents and purposes, is a Southern city. His role in the struggle for black civil rights in this nation deserves a stand-alone column, so I’ll move on. Here’s are a few of my Poitier movie thoughts: Before he made “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” there was “A Patch of Blue” that dealt with an interracial relationship between his character and a blind white girl. I know this might not be politically or socially correct in some circles, but I love the comedies he made with Bill Cosby in the 1970s, “Let’s Do It Again,” “Uptown Saturday Night,” “A Piece of the Action” and “Buck and the Preacher” with his other movie buddy, Harry Belafonte. Another favorite is “Brother John,” where he plays a Christ-like figure who returns to his hometown after traveling to places around the world where there is racial strife and oppression. But my personal favorite is the movie version of “A Raisin in the Sun;” the play would be my favorite if I could ever find a copy of the original Broadway production. It’s the story of a black family who gets and (spoiler alert) loses life insurance money with which they were planning to buy a house. I wasn’t that fond of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” because his character had to be too perfect. He had to be a doctor the girl met on the train coming home, instead of say someone she had seen and talked to a lot like a bank teller or postal worker? Another movie I wasn’t that fond of for a while was “The Defiant Ones.” I thought he should have caught the train and left Tony Curtis’ racist character to suffer the fate he deserved. I changed my mind about that film after volunteering to go to jail, along with a white friend who had been charged with driving while drunk. Poitier became the first black male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role of a handyman in “Lilies of the Field,” but it’s still a hohummer for me. But I did like “The Last Brickmaker In America,” one of his last movie roles. After hearing the news that Betty White had died a couple weeks ago, my first thought for some reason was about Poitier, and I went over to my bookshelf and thumbed through his memoir, The Measure of a Man. In my eyes, there were times I believed he was more than a man. As we approach the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most important and influential Americans in history, I want people who care to think about this when they see, hear or read rightwing conservatives take the words he spoke in 1963 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial out of context, as they always do. When they say they judge people by the content of the character and not the color of their skin, they are talking out of both sides of their mouths, unless you vote like them and are compliant with their goals aims and wants. Here are some lines from that speech you’ll never hear them quote: “In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ “When will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality …. “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one ….. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Hi, Momma Lois.

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