Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier. The Measure of a Man. San Francisco: Harper, 2000.

This is a book about life, not necessarily about one man’s life, as it is meant to be a spiritual book with much questioning of what one does in life. Sidney Poitier notes the common frames of references that movies create for all to discuss their messages and their applications to life. People form common bonds in viewing, learning from, and raising questions collectively from their film viewings. This is a book about finding and living one’s values.

Poitier was born of parents from the Bahamas in a premature birth while his parents were selling tomatoes in Miami. He weighed less than three pounds and his parents, having already experienced still born and diseased children who died after birth, were concerned he wouldn’t live. His mother went to a soothsayer who told his mother that he would live and carry the family name worldwide. His mother, inspired by these words, fought to keep him alive.

When Poitier saw his first movie at age six, he was determined at the point to become an actor. His parents, though, didn’t quite understand movies. When they went to see his first movie “No Way Out” and watched a scene where he gets pistol whipped, his mother started yelling, inside the theater, “hit him back, Sidney! Hit him back. You never did anything to him.”

Poitier grew up a simple life on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He grew up in poverty in a family of tomato farmers in a place with nice beaches, climate, and native plums, grapes, and bananas. He grew up as child free to roam the island, where they were no paved roads, but many paths.

At age 10, the island’s tomato farming business collapsed. He and his family moved to Nassau. He recalls as a child the thrills and fears of taking risks, such as crawling through an underground ditch where he could have drowned. At age 15, he moved in with his brother in Miami to seek a living.

Poitier found Miami oppressive and he fled to New York on a one way bus ticket. He didn’t know about winter. The cruelty of not having proper clothing to survive the winter drove him to join the Army. There he didn’t understand military discipline and he throw a char at an office and was placed in a psychiatric ward. He observed if he acted as if he was crazy he could avoid prison and he was discharged from the Army.

Returning to New York, Poitier saw an ad for actors at the American Negro Theatre. He could barely read, had no acting training, had a thick Bahamian accent, and he failed his audition, being told to “get yourself a job as a dishwasher or something”. That comment tore at him. He made it his goal to prove to them he was an actor. He studied English from another waiter where he worked. He went to a second audition and was hired. He, though, was upset to only receive a role as an understudy to another Caribbean actor, Harry Belafonte. Fortunately, a casting director saw him on a night he was filling in for Belafonte and he was offered a Broadway role.

Poitier suffered from extreme stage fright. Yet the reviews for his performance were good. This led to a job with a road show followed by off-Broadway roles and then his first movie, “No Way Out”. The film director Joseph Mankowicz recommended him to producer Zoltan Korda who hired him to appear in London theater.

Poitier was offered a movie role where he didn’t like the script and he turned it down. An agent Marty Baum noted the part paid well, wasn’t racially demanding, and that Poitier felt an integrity in turning down a bad role. He offered to represent Poitier, telling him “anyone as crazy as yet, I want to handle him.”

While filming movies, Poitier noted that of cast and crew of almost a hundred people, he frequently was the only Black. From this, he felt very much as if his work was representing millions of Black people.

It was hard for Blacks to get acting jobs, get acting jobs, and be recognized for them. Poitier in fact would become the first Black to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier and others raised the issue with Actors’ Equity only to find themselves blacklisted from getting parts. Poitier believes that Leigh Whipper, the leader of the Negro Actors Guild, was a sell out who did not fight for more acting roles for Blacks. Whipper told him to accept the system and showed that he had a gun he would use on Poitier or anyone else who messed with him.

Poitier fortunately did win a role in the movie “Blackboard Jungle”. He was asked to sign a loyalty oath because he knew Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, and other Blacks actors “of questionable character”. Poitier refused to sign a loyalty oath. Shooting began. They never asked him again to sign the oath.

While doing publicity for “Blackboard Jungle”, Poiter went into a restaurant in Georgia only to learn that, by law, a Black person could only be served if a screen was placed around him. He left.

Poitier received a role on a David Susskind TV show. NBC asked Poitier to sign a loyalty oath and again he declined. David Susskind told Poitier to go to work and ignore NBC. Again, no one challenged his not signing the oath.

Poitier did a TV film in 1955 “Edge of the City” where Hilda Simms played his wife. Simms, who was a fair skinned Black, looked white on TV. Many viewers objected to what they thought was a presentation of an interracial couple and they jammed the TV station phones and sent letters in protest.

Poitier writer how Hollywood had been unfair to Black actors for movie roles. He believes Hollywood was insensitive towards Blacks and how this disservice has been captured on film. He feels he does owe a debt to Black film actors before him, knowns how much it pained them to perform roles that demeaned Blacks, and notes that many of them were able to show some good active as positive signs.

1968 was a good year for Poitier. He starred in the that year’s top three box office successes, “To Sir, With Love”, “In the Heat of the Night”, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Poitier was applauded for his strong roles that better represented Black culture. He was criticized by some for not being angry enough Poitier sees his roles as a teacher as one demonstrating virtue, his role of a police detective as one showing intelligence and courage, and his role as doctor as showing courteousness. He believes he helped show that Black society has accomplishment, education, and refinement that deserves recognition.

Poitier notes that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Paul Robeson, and Nelson Mandela made advances without being angry. Poitier sees anger as being a destructive energy that instead should be channeled into positive energy.

While preparing the filming of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, people involved in the film delayed telling Columbia pictures the controversy of interracial dating that the movie would show. Instead, they assured the studio that he, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy were all onboard and that it would be a funny and warm script. Columbia began to have doubts and then stated they could not get insurance for Spencer Tracy due to his age. Tracy then stated he wouldn’t take any pay until filming was complete. Poitier notes the real world parallels when he was invited to dinner by Hepburn and Tracy and felt that while they believed in the ideals of the movie, that even Hollywood liberals in the 1960s were not used to having Black men over for dinner.

Poitier observes we have memories and he advises actors should reach a sense from their experiences to convey a character’s emotions. When audiences can see that, the actor has a “presence” that shows “a camera likes that actor”.

He strives to learn from other actors. Acting is more than pretending to be someone else. An actor prepares at length to objectively explore a character, then subjectively examine the role, and then focus so the character remains that person through the entire role. He recommends an actor intensively immersing the actor’s self into the role. This is what he learned from Rod Steiger.

An actor must know what life is about and know about causes and effects. Acting requires discipline. An actor should realize that human emotions are similar for everyone. The audience knows this, and the actor should recognize these universal traits. Effective acting is being real and being in the moment. An actor should learn to avoid portraying an unbelievable character. A sense of life can be found from doing good work.

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