Pictures at a Revolution (9 page)

While nobody was claiming that the film was a masterpiece, much of Hollywood and the press were willing to laud it as a step in the right direction. More than a decade after the McCarthy era and blacklisting had caused many in the movie business to retreat from any public association with political issues, the civil rights movement was becoming the occasion for many in Hollywood to reassert their right to speak out on political issues. Actors like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando felt free to make their voices heard, and so did those considered industry leaders like Gregory Peck and Robert Wise.
The August 1963 civil rights march in Washington had been a galvanizing moment for the repoliticization of Hollywood, which
New York Times
columnist Murray Schumach wrote had “decided to rejoin the nation after nearly 16 years of spiritual secession.”

The content of
Lilies of the Field
was anything but political, but the fact that some movie houses in the South declined to book the film only added to its status as a good cause. And Poitier was a hard man to root against. Before Oscar night, one of his competitors for Best Actor,
's Paul Newman, announced that he would be skipping the ceremony and pulling for Poitier to win. And even the part of the Hollywood establishment that still had one foot planted firmly in the era of red-baiting saw a chance, as columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote, “to telegraph to the globe that WE do not discriminate and thus give the lie to our so-called Communist friends.”

Poitier knew that was nonsense. He was well aware that, as much as the sight of a black man holding an Oscar statuette for the first time might move many black and white Americans, his win would be used to sell a preposterous falsehood, the spurious notion that the movie industry had solved its own race problem and was now pointing the way for the rest of America. “Did I say to myself, ‘This country is waking up and beginning to recognize that certain changes are inevitable?'” he wrote, recalling the evening. “No, I did not. I knew that we hadn't ‘overcome,' because I was still the only one.”

Nonetheless, when Anne Bancroft, who had won the Best Actress Oscar a year earlier for
The Miracle Worker
, took the stage, announced the nominees, opened the envelope, and, beaming, spoke Poitier's name, he strode to the podium with genuine excitement, telling the cheering audience, “It has been a long journey to this moment.”

That much, at least, was true.
Lilies of the Field
was the thirty-six-year-old actor's nineteenth movie. Poitier was a native of the Bahamas who grew up in poverty; he moved to Miami as a teenager, then to New York, where he scraped by working in blue-collar service jobs and living in small rented rooms before he turned to acting. Poitier began his career as an immigrant who could barely read, an outsider wherever he found himself; the growing music and theater scene in Harlem in the late 1940s, and the indigenous black American experience from which it grew, felt and sounded, at first, as foreign to him as everything else in America. (He taught himself diction and grammar by listening to a white man on the radio.) He made his movie debut playing a doctor in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 urban melodrama
No Way Out.
The film established a template for Poitier's roles that was to provide him steady, if creatively constricting, employment for the next fifteen years: The character was a young professional surrounded by white bigots, a so-called credit to his race who achieved what white America was comfortable labeling “dignity” by at once demonstrating that he could feel anger and proving he was evolved enough to restrain himself from expressing it. Eventually, white characters in many of his movies would come to understand his finer qualities, meaning they would learn that he was exceptional and should therefore not be the target of prejudice: Often, for the sake of an imagined evenhandedness that made the films more palatable to white moviegoers, Poitier's character had to learn a lesson, too, usually something about the perils of being too proud or suspicious to accept a helping hand.

Poitier worked steadily after
No Way Out:
He was handsome, and his Roman-coin features made him castable across a broad age range (five years after playing a doctor, he played a high school student in
The Blackboard Jungle
, the film that really ignited his career). And he had no competition, since in the 1950s the movie industry had room for exactly one black actor (Belafonte, who acted once in a while, was really more of a recording star). Hollywood needed an “Exceptional Negro” in the 1950s, and Poitier was perfect in the role. Aside from his talent and magnetism, he demonstrated a remarkable instinct for self-presentation; without anyone to emulate, he knew exactly how much he could say publicly without jeopardizing his status in either black or white America. In the press, he walked a fine line almost unerringly: He was humble but never servile, concerned but rarely intemperate, unwilling to pretend bigotry was anything other than an immense national problem, but optimistic that it would eventually give way. But as much as journalists liked to point out his unique status to him, Poitier didn't spend much time discussing the cost of that exceptionalism. He wouldn't let himself—couldn't let himself—play villains. Hollywood would never allow him to play a character with real sexual passion. And the possibility that he might one day be able to compete with white actors for roles in which race could be factored out wasn't even worth discussing.

In public, Poitier kept his own counsel about those issues, muting his frustration beneath a calm, consistent expression of personal responsibility. “While he disclaims being a crusader or a leader, Poitier acknowledges that he has made it a policy not to play any role that might offend Negro sensibilities or diminish the Negro's stature as a human being,” noted
The New York Times
approvingly in 1959, on the eve of his first Oscar nomination and his ecstatically received performance as Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry's
A Raisin in the Sun
on Broadway. “As I see myself, I'm just the average Joe Blow Negro,” Poitier told the paper.
“But, as the cats say in my area, I'm out there wailing for us all.” Poitier was not afraid to speak out about civil rights: The following year, when he went to Los Angeles to star in the film version of
A Raisin in the Sun
and ended up sequestered with his family in the Chateau Marmont, he went public about the fact that he couldn't rent a house for himself, his wife, and his daughters in a desirable neighborhood. “I speak about this with pain,” he said, “because I would not like to say these things exist.” Housing discrimination, he went on to say, “will yield only to time and pressure.”
But his self-defined duty to be the one “wailing for us all” meant that Poitier had to keep his own complicated personal life under wraps. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton could provide endless grist for talk-show jokes and gossip columns, but the news that Poitier, a married father of three, had long been having an affair with actress Diahann Carroll and was now headed for divorce would not have been welcome to moviegoers of any race.
Everything Poitier said and did had ramifications; the only real power he had was his control over the version of himself he chose to show the world.

How much had really changed, even in Hollywood, as Bancroft hugged Poitier, who took the trophy, made a jubilant acceptance speech, and left the stage to another round of applause? In New York, the actor was to be honored by Mayor Robert F. Wagner with a ticker tape parade. But he still had to endure appalling indignities like the
magazine story that said he bounded to the stage to receive his Oscar “more like a great Negro high jumper than a great Negro actor” and, as a mark of approval, gushed that “he is so overpoweringly good looking that he quite literally pales the white actors beside him.”
In his postvictory interviews, Poitier was, as always, grateful but judicious and precise, reminding people that the award was “not a magic wand” and saying, “I don't think that I'll ever be able to function as freely as a Marlon Brando, or a Burt Lancaster or a Paul Newman.”

Of course, he was right. In 1964, black Americans were still virtually invisible in filmed entertainment. “All we ask is that movies show the truthful American image,” Edward W. Warren, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had complained in 1961. “Any time [movies] have a crap game they show plenty of Negroes. But when do you see a Negro doctor or lawyer?…They will show you a scene with a baseball crowd and you don't see a single Negro. You will see city street scenes and not a single Negro. This is ridiculous.”
At first, Hollywood simply didn't listen. When 20th Century-Fox was taken to task for making Darryl F. Zanuck's World War II epic
The Longest Day
without any close-ups of black soldiers,
Dick Zanuck was caught flatfooted, first announcing that the studio's research had shown that no black soldiers were involved in D-Day
and then, when that proved not to be the case, defending his father by pointing out that “one of his three secretaries was a Negro.”

In 1963, the movie and television industries finally began to take some real, if minuscule, steps toward integration, less out of the goodness of their corporate hearts than as the result of an extremely effective campaign waged by the NAACP, which threatened to go before the National Labor Relations Board and attempt to have Hollywood's unions decertified if they didn't start integrating.
It took a sitdown between the NAACP and an alliance of producers before Hollywood would even commit to the principle that “more Negroes should be used in movies,”
both on screen and on crews. Later that year, Wendell Franklin became the first black man ever to hold the job of assistant director on a studio movie,
The Greatest Story Ever Told
, and publicly expressed his nervousness about how white crew members would react to being told what to do by him.
But despite the NAACP's attempt to urge more black workers to apply for jobs, Hollywood's unions remained largely closed shops,
and network television programmers were even more fearful than their movie studio counterparts. The pilot for the ABC sitcom
sat on the shelf for more than a year, a victim of complaints by the network's southern stations that its innocuous comic story of an advertising man whose wife is a witch was a veiled argument for racial intermarriage. In 1963, CBS became the first network to use a black actor as part of the ensemble of a drama series, casting Cicely Tyson as a secretary in the gritty, innovative New York–based drama
East Side/West Side.
But the network asked the show's producers to limit the number of scenes in which she appeared, and the series was canceled after one season, the victim of southern affiliates that refused to carry it at all.

The NAACP's battles with Hollywood kept making news; the organization proved to be far more skilled than even the publicity-savviest Hollywood studios at taking the lead with the press and keeping its side of the fight in the headlines. Their strategy of repeated public complaints was so potent and widely recognized that, on Oscar night, Sammy Davis Jr., who was handed the wrong envelope as he was about to present an award, got the show's biggest laugh by ad-libbing, “Wait until the NAACP hears about this!”

Two days after Poitier's win, television critic Jack Gould commented dryly that Anne Bancroft's on-camera embrace of the actor, had it occurred in a scripted television series, “would have been written out lest Southern sensibilities be disturbed.”
Gould called the actor's victory one of the few redeeming moments of the show. However, nobody was very specific about what, exactly, was being redeemed. Poitier's Best Actor win was widely taken as a breakthrough moment that was laden with symbolism. But what it symbolized was not a fundamental alteration in Hollywood's use of black actors, only an affirmation of what Poitier's career had always represented—his own status as the exception to the rule.

Sidney Skolsky's exultant headline
must have struck Poitier as ironic, given the one fact that everyone was politely declining to mention: This year's Oscar winner didn't have a job. Poitier had two films awaiting release—he had completed a cameo in
The Greatest Story Ever Told
and had a starring role as a Moorish prince in a period adventure film called
The Long Ships
that he already knew was going to be dreadful. He felt that his career was largely dependent on the grace and conviction of a handful of men—producer-directors Stanley Kramer and Richard Brooks and Columbia chief Mike Frankovich
—who kept him working and visible. His success was fragile.

Poitier's Oscar would turn
Lilies of the Field
from a modest hit into a major one and transform him into something he had never been before, a movie star with a box office following of his own. After the award, the film's business increased by as much as 500 percent in some theaters; the same southern movie houses that had refused to book
now sought it,
and the movie played into the fall of 1964. But the week after the Oscars, when Poitier went to New York to receive a medal from Mayor Wagner, he was still wondering what would come next for him, and the dissonance between the celebration that surrounded him and his own internal turmoil must have been overwhelming. For one of the first times in his career, Poitier lost his temper in front of a reporter. Pressed to answer the same questions about the civil rights movement he had been fielding for days, he replied, “Why don't you ask me human questions? Why is it everything you ask refers to the Negroness of my life and not to my acting?”

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