As some of you may know, as a young lad, my world was very small and insulated…“Neverland”. There was so much happening right around me, but as a child, rightfully so, I was so unaware. I still think that’s a good thing. A child should be able to be to look at the world…his or her world, through their own eyes and also through the filtered eyes of their parents. So you can imagine how big my eyes grew when I saw the movie “Blackboard Jungle” which was shown on TV one special Friday night.
What was so special about this Friday was that a few weeks prior to its showing, two events drew the attention of the media and so-called concerns of citizens in Detroit. One event happened at my junior high school, Nolan, and the second event took place exactly one week later at the neighborhood high school, Pershing.
The Nolan event was a fight where one student had a knife. It was a table knife that he had stolen from the school cafeteria. I was right there when the knife was pulled and at the same time cops pulled up. We ran like the proverbial roaches from light in all directions. It was a fight between two black boys…you know the situation, friends for life, before and after. The incident, so you know, was small potatoes in the hood but it became a big deal even in a city as big as Detroit was then…because of the knife.
The fight at Pershing again was between two black kids and this time it was a switchblade, as I recall. The “establishment” went absolutely crazy!!! There was a media explosion…editorials, exposé’s, re-hashes of past times and there were meetings and panels trying to figure out what had suddenly gone wrong with our kids and society.
And that is why on that special night the local television station showed the movie. It was supposed to show what it is like in classrooms across America. Blackboard Jungle wasn’t the only cautionary tale about high school life. But it had one thing that most of the “ripped from the headlines” movies didn’t have…a great cast. It featured Glenn Ford (Teacher) a young Vic Morrow (Bad Kid), Ann Francis (Wife), Richard Kiley (Music Teacher), Jamie Farr (Kid) and of course…Sydney Poitier! It also featured the song that “marked the rock and roll revolution”, Bill Haley and His Comets “Rock Around the Clock”. It was Number One on Billboard for 8 weeks, not bad for a boy from Highland Park, MI.
The first time I saw this movie I was still a child, eleven years old, with my insulated brain. My world wasn’t like this and as enlightening as it was on a social level it was also kind of scary. It felt so good that Detroit as I knew it, was not like the schools portrayed in this movie or any other.
So here I was watching a movie where blacks were in an integrated environment and were more than a backdrop. I wasn’t crazy about the stereotype of blacks singing gospel songs at the drop of the hat, but he was an intelligent young man that in more ways than one I could relate to.
After that I paid more attention to the actor, Sydney Poitier. I couldn’t help but notice that his roles and movies were pretty reflective of what was happening at the time. Hollywood had a foil that they could use as an embraceable voice to society and he was good, make that very good at doing just that. Most of his major roles were exercises on civil rights. And he had many firsts in roles, billings and awards. Here’s a short list of his socially trailblazing movies…
· Blackboard Jungle 1955
· Edge of the City 1957
· The Defiant Ones (with Tony Curtis) 1958
· All the Young Men 1960
· A Raisin In the Sun 1961
· Pressure Point (with Bobby Darin) 1962
· Lilies of the Field (Best Actor Oscar) 1963
· A Patch of Blue 1965
· To Sir With Love 1967
· In the Heat of the Night 1967
· Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? 1967
Sydney was the consummate actor and he could stand his ground with any actor and this list of movies notwithstanding, his range as an actor was incredible. I am sure some roles were his by default, especially since he, as most actors of his generation, worked constantly.
So, in a retro-fitted way Sydney Poitier became that role model that a lot of people, including myself and probably a few people in my immediate family bought in to. “Blackboard Jungle” did demonstrate in a raw kind of way that an “intelligent, savvy, street-wise, mentally strong black man, whether or not he was always socially correct”, could deal with white society (the establishment) at any level. Many a time you would hear parents/adults admonish a black child or young adult saying “you should be like that a… SIT-NEE POE-TEE-AIR”. That stopped around the time he married Johanna Shimkus, of course.
His accurate portrayals, of young black men at different emotional stages, like the role as Walter Lee Younger, in the film “A Raisin in the Sun” were impressive! Walter Lee, who really wanted to be in charge of his own destiny, was hustled out of his money by actor Roy Glenn and so went his dream of getting out of the ghetto. This film is loaded with great actors too. Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands and Lou Gossett, Jr., were the featured performers. I was 11 also when this movie came out and because it wasn’t “Godzilla or War of the Worlds”, I missed it. But I saw this and another flick “Nothing Like a Man” starring Ivan Dixon, 3 times each in high school…Pershing High, knife fight, Pershing High.
I was really seeing more of what the world was really like through his movies. Some fit right in with my little insulated world, like “A Patch of Blue”, the interracial love story, for one. With the diversity surrounding us, just on the three blocks we lived on, we had a unique, yet special view of the world. Not special like we were the only ones to have such an existence, but like if we could have it why couldn’t everybody else live in harmony like we did.
The world changed as I got more mobile and uniquely so did Sydney’s roles. First there was “To Sir With Love!” This was a movie I totally resisted seeing at first. I thought it was wimpy. I knew the theme “black man raises the level of life and expectations of working-class kids and families”…another savior film. This was not a movie that could have been distributed everywhere in the states so it was a little daring.
If you are old enough to remember the fashion and look of the times, Mary Quant cosmetics, etc., then you know how the look in film transferred to the kids walking the streets between Woodward and Van Dyke Streets between 7 and 8 Mile Rds.
My friend, Tessie Green, dragged me to see it one snowy Saturday afternoon. It was playing at the Palms Theatre. The place was packed…there was such a mix of young and old, white and black, men and mostly women theatergoers. It was good…admittedly; it was a great story and very well acted by all. With just the right amount of sentiment and racial/social references. What a success for the middle-class!
I remember when my buddy, future brother-in-law, Rickey and I went to see “In the Heat of the Night”. Even in “Neverland”, it was hard not to know what was going on across the south and ghettos everywhere. You saw “Burn Baby Burn” scrawled or posted everywhere as cities were burning down. Racial tensions were high and here comes a movie that hangs it all out there in living color.
The opening scenes of the movie show us a man sitting at a lonely train station unaware that his life was going to change in a blink of an eye. A black man, all alone, when a murder happens? This is not a good thing, even if he wasn’t black, so this sets the stage for a journey that two men take as they learn about race relations, dignity and pride, two words that you always think about when you think of Sydney Poitier.
It was a fascinating movie, with great performances by Rod Steiger, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, William Schallert and the great Beah Richards. It had a lot of plot twists and devices that showed the good and bad of the old south. Bad traditions and social stereotypes were displayed to the naked eye. The movie manifested everything I had feared about the south. Nobody I knew at this time was singing, “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton”.
In this movie, a man is briefly stripped and denied everything he stands for. The words I had heard many times before, “I don’t know why you try so hard…you’re still a nigga to dem,” were marching through my mind. As it is in most movies the good guy does win out, but you had some doubt as to how until Sydney’s Virgil exclaimed, “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” No more “boy” stuff as many a black man has heard and not just in the south. Women had R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Men now had D-I-G-N-I-T-Y!
Powerful words, said at the right time. That single line has been recognized by the American Film Institute also. It is ranked #16 on the institute’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes, a list of top film quotes. And an untold amount of black mens backbones got a little firmer and straighter and they sought to take back or hold onto the two things that they were born with.
I never saw “Guess Who’s Coming Over for Dinner”. That was too much like life in Neverland. Only, we had breakfast and lunch thrown in there for good measure. Integrated families, neighborhoods and schools were part of the existence. Socially, I thought I was already past it. But what was good theatre of polite chatter in a sophisticated world, totally different words and attitudes were being used and displayed in the real world. I was personally surprised when I found this out. My naiveté was exposed once again and though they were merely speed bumps on the road of life, lessons that needed to be learned were learned. Nonetheless, social consciousness was again raised and attitudes were again exposed, by a Sydney Poitier movie where people had to ask themselves “what if”?
Subsequent to the start of this project, I discussed its status with my brother Isaac and he had a few more suggestions, like
- No Way Out 1950
- The Edge of the City 1957
- For the Love of Ivy 1968
- A Warm December (directed by S. P.) 1974
I didn’t initially remember “No Way Out”, but after hearing his re-telling of the movie outline, I definitely remember it now.
So that’s my story for Black History Month. I hope that it as enhanced your appreciation for a noteworthy black artist…a black artistic historical figure, whose impact on society and my life via his movies/roles is undeniable. Ladies and Gentlemen…SIT-NEE POE-TEE-AIR!