Q&A with “Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man” Guest Programmer. Series Begins Feb 6 at AFS Cinema.

For February’s Essential Cinema program, AFS presents Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man, a showcase of some of the most memorable performances by actor, director, activist, and cultural force Sidney Poitier. The series will begin with THE DEFIANT ONES on Thursday, February 6 at 7PM at the AFS Cinema. The full line-up and tickets can be found here.

Five films starring Poitier will be featured throughout the month, including his breakout role in THE DEFIANT ONES, career-defining turns in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, a jazz-steeped portrait in PARIS BLUES, and his directorial debut effort BUCK & THE PREACHER.

We will be joined at select screenings by guest programmer Mark D. Cunningham, associate professor at Austin Community College, for discussions about Poitier and his work. Ahead of the series start, we spoke with Dr. Cunningham about the films he has curated for the series, and about the legendary Poitier himself. Here’s what he had to say:

HOW DID YOU DECIDE WHICH OF SIDNEY POITIER’S FILMS TO INCLUDE IN THIS SERIES?

In choosing the films for the series, I thought it would be interesting to include a blend of his more iconic roles with a couple of his lesser known ones. Certainly, we think of Poitier standing firm and forcefully saying, “They call me MR. TIBBS!” However, I thought it also important to show more humorous and romantic sides of the man. Not to mention, I thought it important to showcase his work behind the camera as a director, something I think the general public either might not know or don’t always remember about him.

ASIDE FROM BEING AN ACTOR OF IMMENSE TALENT, POITIER IS ALSO A MAN OF SEVERAL HISTORIC FIRSTS AND RECORD ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN FILM. IN YOUR OPINION, WHICH IS THE MOST IMPORTANT AND WHY?

Not to be cliché, but I would point to his win of the Best Actor Academy Award in 1964 for LILLIES OF THE FIELD. I can only imagine, at that time, what that must have meant to a community of people not always on the receiving end when celebrating talent in Hollywood. If only for that moment, it had to have been a source of pride and certainly kicked open another door that had previously been closed.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT PRODUCED ONE OF POITIER’S MOST-WIDELY KNOWN CHARACTERS, VIRGIL TIBBS, WHOM HE WOULD REPRISE IN TWO SEQUELS. WHAT MAKES TIBBS SUCH AN ENDURING FIGURE IN AMERICAN DRAMA, AND ONE OF POITIER’S MOST POPULAR PERFORMANCES?

Tibbs is everything we think Sidney Poitier to be, in some ways. He is this stately presence, but also sharp, intelligent, fearless, and tough. The scene from this movie that always stands out is when he returns the slap given to him by the plantation owner. All of what I described prior, to me, is embodied in that scene.

VERY POPULAR WHEN RELEASED, 1967’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? WAS ALSO ONE OF THE MOST GROUNDBREAKING FILMS OF THE ERA FOR THE COMPLEX THEMES IT EXPLORED AND CONTINUES TO RESONATE. HOW IS THE FILM REFLECTIVE OF ITS OWN TIME, AND ALSO OF TODAY? CAN YOU ELABORATE SPECIFICALLY ON WHAT POITIER BROUGHT TO THE ROLE OF JOHN PRENTICE AND THE FILM?

This is one of the more problematic films in the Poitier oeuvre, in my opinion. Certainly, I can see, in 1967, why this was seen as progressive. Here is one of the few films to explore interracial marriage. True, Poitier had been down this road before in A PATCH OF BLUE (1965), but this marriage was happening in this film! It is well meaning in its attempt to address the concerns of racism during the Civil Rights Movement. However, looking at it today, it is largely sanitized and really does not complicate the issue at all. Further, the relationship is still “safely done,” aware of the boundaries it is attempting to challenge. Poitier is asexual, almost too good to be true and it just, overall, rings false. It does not resonate now—and maybe not for many then either—because the film behaves almost as if there is no real struggle for racial equality happening outside the walls in which the characters function. Still, coming out the same year as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, we are able to see Poitier’s range significantly. We see him in DINNER, as the handsome romantic lead, doling out affection and tame kisses instead of slaps and racially charged exchanges.

PARIS BLUES, PERHAPS BEST KNOWN FOR ITS SOUNDTRACK, IS ONE OF POITIER’S LESSER-KNOWN FILMS. WHY DID YOU FEEL IMPORTANT TO INCLUDE IT IN THE SERIES?

Poitier and Paul Newman acting together in the same film is recommendation enough. However, I think this film proves more influential in that we get to see Poitier in a situation where he not being, in some respects, the Jackie Robinson of Hollywood, finding ways to infiltrate or get along in a white world or relating with white women romantically. In this movie, the object of his affection is the late, great Diahann Carroll and this is not something we see very much of in the earlier parts of Poitier’s career, especially not during the peak of his popularity in the 1960s. It is also made even more interesting when you consider that Poitier and Carroll were having a love affair of their own at the time (the particulars of which challenge the image of perfection often associated with Poitier).

Thanks To Our Annual Sponsors