Sidney Poitier has done a lot of living in his eighty years—enough to write not one memoir but two, the first (This Life) in 1980 and the second, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, in 2000.
Until recently, both of them were pretty much forgotten save by Poitier enthusiasts. (Of whom, admittedly, there are zillions.) But now the The Measure of a Man is making a fabulous comeback, thanks to Oprah Winfrey and her TV book club, which propels its choices to bestseller status within a nanosecond of the announcement.
On the morning of January 26, 2007, the second Poitier memoir was languishing at 288,958 on Amazon.com’s sales roster. Later that day Winfrey sprinkled her pixie dust, and in less than three hours it skyrocketed to the top fifty. At this writing it’s No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, No. 4 at USA Today, the top trade paperback at PublishersWeekly.com, and No. 6 at Amazon, not counting the unabridged CD edition.
Poitier is understandably pleased. It’s hard to imagine a nicer capstone for the rags-to-riches career of a guy from impoverished Cat Island in the British West Indies, whose early acting efforts were stymied by an impenetrable accent and the reading skills you’d expect from a kid who quit school at 13. “Poitier” has been a powerful brand at the movies for more than half a century, and paired with “Oprah” it’s magical in the world of letters as well.
Winfrey is also benefiting from this deal, though. It’s helping her recover from the infamous James Frey Affair, which erupted about a year ago, after she went characteristically nuts over A Million Little Pieces, about Frey’s exploits as a twentysomething stoner. Sure enough, the Oprah imprimatur shot Frey’s book to No. 1 at both the Times and Amazon—whereupon the admirable Smoking Gun website published a report documenting big, bad lies in Frey’s accounts of everything from his criminal record (“wanted in three states”) to his adventures with booze and dope, which were a lot more measly than he made them out to be. Inviting him back to her show, Winfrey said she’d been “duped” and her viewers “betrayed” by the fabrications and fantasies he’d passed off as nonfiction. But by this time her seal of approval had boosted the book’s sales to around three and a half million copies, and lots of buyers were howling mad. Off went the Book Club into cold storage.
Now the club has been resurrected, and it’s safe to assume that Winfrey has been extremely careful about selecting its first post-scandal volume. If she’d come to you or me for advice, we would surely have counseled her to choose an extremely respectable book by an extremely respectable author whose life, work, and very thoughts are as pure as the proverbial driven snow. Can any writer now alive possibly meet this lofty standard? By my calculations there is exactly one. Sidney Poitier is his name, and elevating the ethical consciousness of American cinema is his game.
The facts speak for themselves. First, he is indisputably an author. He has written two books, and he is credited with the “story” of For Love of Ivy, a 1968 movie he starred in. Second, he is also an auteur, having directed such films as Stir Crazy and Hanky Panky. Third, he is an actor who chooses his roles as carefully as Winfrey must have chosen his book. He has played everyone from Nelson Mandela and Thurgood Marshall to Simon of Cyrene and the FBI’s deputy director. He has portrayed fictional and fact-based characters in 53 movies, and he has portrayed himself in 47 films and TV shows. He was handcuffed to Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones; he loved a blind girl in A Patch of Blue; and in Lilies of the Field he quoted scripture better than the nuns. Perhaps most memorably, he got Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to let him marry their daughter in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, courageously blazing a trail for all those real black physicians with Ivy League degrees, World Health Organization credentials, and luxury homes in Switzerland.
On top of this, Poitier is one of Winfrey’s lifelong idols—not just a splendid fellow but, in her words, “one of the greatest men I think who has ever been on our planet.” Take that, Nelson Mandela! Eat humble pie, Simon of Cyrene! It’s easy to scoff at Winfrey’s gushiness, but hey, a TV host who’s currently preoccupied with the self-help silliness of Rhonda Byrne is too tempting a target to resist. And while Poitier deserves honest criticism for limiting his range almost exclusively to Decent and Dignified Gents, he really is a terrific actor. It was fun watching him outquote those nuns. (He deserved his Best Actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field, the first ever given to an African-American.) And not just anyone could have made a simple declarative sentence into a five-word emblem of the American civil-rights struggle. “They call me Mister Tibbs!”
Poitier really did play a definitive part in breaking down Hollywood’s color line, moreover—a line that remains to this day, but would be even more rigid if he and a few colleagues (Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, et al) hadn’t fought for some measure of equal opportunity on and off the screen. Poitier accomplished this largely through his expertise at a certain sort of role, and he made his career decisions with eyes wide open to pros and cons alike.
His discussions of all this in The Measure of a Man show how alert he’s been to long-term goals as well as short-term advantages. In a chapter called “Why Do White Folks Love Sidney Poitier So?” he runs through some of his major roles—an “epitome of virtue” in To Sir, with Love, a “man of great courage and intelligence” in In the Heat of the Night, and a physician with “academic credentials a mile long [who] spent his time saving mankind” in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. No wonder white folks loved him so! And no wonder black folks started calling him an “Uncle Tom” and a “house Negro” whose job was to “fulfill ... white liberal fantasies” at a time when the likes of Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown were challenging these fantasies in creative and confrontational ways.
It so happens that those three Poitier movies were the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 box-office hits of 1968, the year when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Poitier defends the films as “revolutionary ... in the context of their times.” Then he admits that “there’s a place for people who are angry and defiant ... but that’s never been my role.” His ideal is to transform the “negative energy” of anger into the kind that “can be used to fuel ... positive, healthy excursions in life.” The spiritual kinfolk he claims are the artist-activist Paul Robeson, the world-changing leader Mahatma Gandhi, and others of their nonviolent ilk.
Poitier ranges through much of his life in The Measure of a Man, but the bits I’ve just cited illustrate the blend of autobiography, social commentary, show-biz scuttlebutt, and New Age fuzziness that runs through the book. Poitier is at his best discussing the different attitudes of black and white audiences toward a movie like The Defiant Ones or a filmmaker like the liberal overachiever Stanley Kramer, and he’s commendably realistic when he says that while art can be sociopolitically useful—serving as a “reminder” and “irritant” that “clarifies [and] focuses” looming ills—only action and conflict can actually change the status quo.
He’s at his worst in the “inspirational” passages, culminating in the last two chapters. “The Nature of Opposites” reproduces a tape-recorded “bull session” with a friend, and a mighty sophomoric bull session it turns out to be. Sample insight: “The truth [is that] life is tough.” The final chapter, which has the same title as the book, builds to a similarly philosophical climax. “The only thing we know for sure is that in another eight billion years it will all be over. Our sun will have spent itself ... But you can’t live focused on that.” Good point. Alert the media.
Although the James Frey Affair is the most recent indignity to roil Winfrey’s waters, the Jonathan Franzen Affair got plenty of attention in 2001. That’s when the talented author of The Corrections got disinvited from the Book Club after publicly admitting he’d felt “uncomfortable” about accepting its “logo of corporate ownership” for the cover of his novel. Judging from Franzen’s essay “Meet Me in St. Louis,” reprinted in his book How to Be Alone, he gamely tried to meet the Winfrey show’s enormous demands on his time and energy—interviews, “candid” video sessions, and the like—only to be defeated by the sheer bogusness of it all. The price he paid was revilement by “outraged populists” across the land. He got called a “pompous prick” in Newsweek, an “ego-blinded snob” in the Boston Globe, a “spoiled, whiny little brat” in the Chicago Tribune, and a “motherfucker” in New York magazine. Well, that’s show business.
Poitier isn’t likely to suffer such slings and arrows. Go to the Oprah’s Book Club website and you can send him an e-mail, learn about a “once in a lifetime dinner party” with Poitier and Book Club members, and hear him read a book excerpt “about what really matters—the possibilities within yourself.” Never a shirker or a slacker, Poitier is definitely putting his heart and soul into this thing.
And that’s to his credit. In the end, white folks and black folks have loved Sidney Poitier so much because he so persuasively represents the importance of dignity and self-respect in a society that seems to value them less with every passing year. He’s also smarter than most pop-culture personalities allow themselves to be, or at least to appear, nowadays. His publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, says that while he had editorial “help” with his new book, he didn’t use a ghostwriter! This is one of the rare cases where that actually sounds plausible.
I interviewed Poitier back in 1977, and he told me a slightly different version of a story that appears in The Measure of a Man. Early in his career, when he was making a living as a hotel dishwasher, he was offered a small but pungent part—a janitor who’s intimidated into keeping his mouth shut about a murder—in The Phenix City Story, a 1955 film noir. Poitier had young children, his wife was pregnant again, and money was scarce. Yet without being able to articulate the reason, he turned the movie down. Later he figured out the underlying cause of his gut decision. “The role,” he told me, “wasn’t sufficiently removed from washing dishes.”
It may all be over in another eight billion years, but while we’re still here we could do worse than applauding the package of (mostly) positive energy called Sidney Poitier.
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