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book review: The Measure of a Man, by Sidney Poitier

The key to understanding Sidney Poitier's stellar film career, is that he was willing to walk away from a large movie contract, rather than be a part of a movie script that he found objectionable.  Indeed, early in his acting career he turned down $750-a-week to appear in a major motion picture.  This was at a time when he was working as a dish washer, and trying to make a living as an actor.  The director, Marty Baum, was stunned by Poitier's rejection, and wanted to know why?

"The character simply didn't measure up," explained Poitier. "He didn't fight for what mattered to him most.  He didn't behave with dignity."

That, in a nutshell, describes Poitier's character and outlook on life.  For sure, he wanted to act in Hollywood movies, but on his own terms.  He was a man of dignity, who lived by a high standard, who wouldn't be compromised, even if it meant returning to his former job washing dishes.  "I was here (in Hollywood) under my own terms, and I knew I had no power to influence except the power to say "no.'"

Poitier's career model was his father, a man he admired greatly, who worked various low-paying jobs, from farming and selling tomatoes, to walking from bar to bar in Miami, selling cheap cigars.  He performed these jobs with dignity and self-respect, and never complained about it.


Sidney Poitier was born on a very small Island in the Caribbean, named Cat Island.  It was little more than a low-lying sandy atoll, three miles wide and forty-six miles long.   The Island inhabitants were much like the Poitier family, poor black farmers, descendants of slaves who had migrated to the island some time in the 1800s, probably from Haiti.  The Island had no paved roads, no electricity, no telephones, no schools, and few stores.  The Poitier family home had no running water and no bathrooms.  The family subsisted on whatever they could catch from the ocean, and from gathering fruits and nuts in the trees that grew wild in the tropical climate.  The family's principle livelihood was growing tomatoes, which they sold in the Bahamas.  In 1943, the year of Sidney's birth, the island population numbered around 900 souls.

While traveling in Miami to sell a hundred boxes of tomatoes, the Poitier's seventh child was unexpectedly born.  This would be Sidney Poitier, whose birth was premature.  Baby Sidney weighed less than three pounds, and was not expected to live. While the father prepared to have his son buried (in a shoe box!), his mother took the boy to a soothsayer, who assured her that her son would not only live but "grow up and walk with kings.  He will be rich and famous.  Your name will be carried all over the world.  You must not worry about that child."


When Sidney was ten, the Poitier family moved to Miami, Florida, where young Sidney got his first taste of white supremacy.   At age 17, Sidney struck out on his own, and moved to New York City, where the snow and freezing cold unnerved him.  And little wonder, he had no coat or gloves, and lived on rooftops and in pay toilets.  He was so distressed by the cold and snow, that he decided to join the Army, if for no other reason than to get out of the freezing New York weather. To join, he had to lie about his age.  Within a month of enlisting, he realized the Army was no place for him.  To get a discharge, he decided to act crazy.  It must have been some acting job, because after being interviewed by a trained psychiatrist, he got his wish.

While searching the want ads for a job, he saw an ad placed by the American Negro Theater in Harlem.  At first his future as an actor did not look bright: he couldn't read, and his island dialect was so thick he couldn't be easily understood.  The auditioning agent, was so disgusted that he literally kicked Sidney Poitier out of the theater. " Acting is not your calling," he said.  'Go find a job as a dishwasher." Deeply wounded, Poitier learned something about himself.  He hated rejection and was highly motived to succeed. In fact, he did take a job as a dish washer and, with help from a janitor, earned to read.  Later, dating a bright young girl with ambitions of becoming a model, he worked tirelessly on ridding himself of his "singsong" Bahaminan accent, and to enunciate English words with clarity and precision.

When he auditioned for the Harlem theater again, he was accepted, as a bit player, and to earn money, worked in the theater as a janitor.  It was a package deal; he would mop floors, clean toilets, and they would teach him to act.  When the theater auditioned for its next production, he auditioned for the lead role, but was edged out by another Caribbean actor named Harry Belafonte.  However, the one night Belafonte could not perform, the casting director asked Poitier to take of his place.  His magnetism and stage presence surprised everyone.

Not long after that, the same casting director asked Poitier to audition for the lead in a Broadway play, called "Lysistrata".  While theater critics loathed the play, they liked Poitier.  However, the play ran all of four days.

To Poitier's surprise, "Lysistrata" led to another acting job as an understudy in a road show of "Anna Lucasta," a job that lasted intermittently for several weeks.  After this, Poitier learned that 20th Century-Fox was casting for a movie called "No Way Out".   

While not a large role, Poitier's singular screen presence was being noticed by audiences.  Director Zoltan Korda noticed too, and was so impressed, he sent Poitier to London to play a young priest in "Cry, the Beloved Country."

When filming was finished, Poitier returned to Harlem, and once again took a job washing dishes. With the money he'd earned from acting in two Hollywood movies, he and a friend opened a restaurant called "Ribs in the Ruff", with seating for 13 people.  In order to make ends meet, Poitier and his partner did everything: cooked the ribs, made potato salad, coleslaw, and afterwards, washed the dishes.

By now, Poitier was married.  About these early years of struggle, Poitier writes: "My wife was trying her hand at modeling, by way of necessity that led to a job as a seamstress at a clothing factory.  The life was tough, but we were up to it.  Having lived with my mother and father, having watched how they dealt with other people and with each other, I felt prepared for pretty much anything."


It was around this time, that Poitier turned down a movie role that would pay him a weekly salary of $750.  The director was stunned, but respected Poitier's decision. The director was the aforementioned Marty Baum, who would continue to find movie roles for Poitier.  This would lead to the first of several of his breakthrough performances, beginning with "Blackboard Jungle" in 1955.  His next noteworthy performance was in "The Defiant Ones" in 1958, co-staring Tony Curtis.  Next, he starred as Porgy in "Porgy and Bess". Having made a name in Hollywood, Poitier's next great acting role was in 1961, playing the lead in a play, entitled, "A Raisin in the Sun." Poitier's performance was so riveting that when he returned to acting in movies, the director could not find anyone with the acting chops to replace him.


Poitier's next great movie role was starring in "The Lillies of the Field", a role that would earn him an Academy Award for the Best Actor of 1965.

Poitier was the first African-American to win such a prestigious acting award.  After this, Poitier starred in "A Patch of Blue," yet another movie that drew rave reviews.

Two years later, in 1967, Poitier starred in three legendary Hollywood movies: "To Sir, With Love", "In the Heat of the Night", and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." These were among the top-ten grossing films of that year.  By then, Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest box office draws of his generation.


In 1972, Poitier made his directing debut in "Buck and the Preacher", that reunited him with Harry Belafonte.   He would go on to direct nine more movies.

While the film industry had made Poitier a star of the first magnitude, it was still rife with stereotypical attitudes about what Black actors could do.  Mr. Poitier faced down these attitudes by declining to go along with them, and turned down a number of roles that he felt were demeaning to black people.

Indeed, much of Poitier's book deals with the racial injustices he faced throughout his adult life.  All the while, he kept his anger at bay by finding a positive outlet for what he called his "demons", that otherwise might have destroyed him.

- END -

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