Sidney Poitier never reached the artistic pinnacle of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, or Marlon Brando.
And that wasn’t his fault. As the first and only black movie star of his era, Mr. Poitier felt an intense social responsibility to play upstanding characters in movies. He took it upon himself to ensure that Hollywood started to portray black Americans in a new light – a good light.
The consequence was a string of hits that were socially meaningful but not timelessly great.
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is the ultimate integration movie.
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are a rich liberal San Francisco couple who are taken aback by the man their daughter brings home. He’s a practicing Christian who does not recycle!
Just kidding. It’s 1967. The parents are shocked because their daughter is engaged to a man who is not Caucasian.
There are two little problems with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” First, Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice is too perfect. The message to young black men seems to be that white parents will accept you if you are flawlessly well-mannered and have a quarter million dollars to pay for a decade of Ivy League education.
The other problem is that Spencer Tracy goes from a big jerk during the first 80 minutes to an ultra-tolerant saint in the final scene. The transformation is jarring. It also seems to argue that the only way that an old man can be acceptable to society is if he publicly rebukes all the values that he grew up with. The film is subtly but aggressively ageist.
Dr. Prentice’s father is even more viscerally opposed to interracial marriage than Spencer Tracy’s character. But that problem is never resolved.
Despite its flaws, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” works because Poitier and young Katharine Houghton are so sweet and charming as the young lovers.
“In the Heat of the Night” is a stronger and more mature drama. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, beating “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Sidney Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs: a relentless Philadelphia homicide detective who helps a Mississippi sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a perplexing murder.
Again, Poitier plays a character who is a little too good to be true. He’s a brilliant investigator, sure. But he’s also impossibly brave. A gang of rednecks almost beats him to a pulp and Virgil never so much as mentions the incident again.
“In the Heat of the Night” explores the challenge faced by a moderate racist living in the White Supremacist south. Rod Steiger’s sheriff is certainly not going to be marching with Dr. King anytime soon, but he’s perfectly comfortable working with a black guy and even befriending him. He learns that just being a little open-minded can be enough to get you ostracized and fired.
The film is compelling right up until the unsatisfying ending. I am not too proud to admit that I don’t understand who the murderer was or how Virgil Tibbs unraveled the mystery.
Sidney Poitier was the most important and admirable movie star of the 1960s. But if he was also the most talented actor, we will never get to know. The characters he played were not believable and the movies themselves aren’t all that great.