Sidney Poitier was perfect, but we learned nothing from him


Question: “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” »

Answer: Not me, that’s for sure.

It’s the first black history month since the death of Arizona State University film school namesake Sidney Poitier and the 55th anniversary of his starring role that has challenged attitudes toward race relations as the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment should extend to interracial couples seeking the legal right to marry.

The film’s legacy in the modern cultural landscape should infuriate anyone with common sense.

It contains black-and-white lessons about race relations that are increasingly important in an ever-diversifying America, but students across Arizona won’t be able to learn them if a series of Republican-led proposals aimed at restricting lessons on race and ethnicity becomes law.

These bills appear to be part of a nationwide campaign to divert attention from conversations about improving public education, which should focus on per-student funding, gifted student programs and teacher compensation. Instead, teachers are told they cannot “cast blame” when discussing the legacy of racism and how it has shaped the nation.

We’re asking the wrong questions about this movie

If these bills pass, educators wouldn’t be able to use a movie like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” to explain the problem illustrated by Poitier’s character, John Prentice: that a black man, born Negro, must approach perfection even to exist in a white world. (Or as the courteous modern American philosopher Chris Rock said, “The black man must fly to get to something a white man can walk.”)

Roger Ebert, in a 1968 review, described the apprentice from Poitiers as “a noble, wealthy, intelligent, handsome and ethical medical expert who sits on United Nations committees when not rushing to Africa, Asia, Switzerland and all those other places where his genius is needed.”

Poitier’s character, according to LA Times cultural critic Mary McNamara last month, was “a man of such impeccable good faith…that the real question is not whether he should be ‘allowed’ to marry Joey (Drayton played by Katharine Houghton), but what exactly does she bring to the table?”

She is white.

That’s what she brings.

He is perfect; she is white.

Should black people be perfect or servile?

In the film, Prentice de Poitiers and Drayton de Houghton had known each other less than two weeks after meeting on vacation in Hawaii.

But the tension of those 10 days was apparently enough for the ‘noble’ and ‘impeccable’ Prentice to visit the family that raised him in order to gain approval from Drayton’s parents, which he eventually wins in a Closing monologue delivered by Spencer Tracy’s patriarch character, Matt Drayton.

“I’m sure you know what you’re up against,” Tracy’s Drayton said. “There will be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked, offended and appalled, and you will just have to get through that – maybe every day for the rest of your life.

“You could try to ignore these people or you could pity them and their prejudices and their bigotry and their blind hatred and their stupid fears, but if necessary you’ll just have to huddle together and say, ‘Aim at all those people!’ ”

And after giving that blessing, he turns to his maid, a black woman, Tillie, played by Isabel Sanford, who the audience is led to believe is considered family by the Draytons, and he asks: “When the hell are we going to dinner? »

And she rushes to serve them.

55 years later, we still face these insecurities

The film seems intended to reassure audiences that some black people are good enough to be deemed acceptable in the white world if they are perfect like Prentice de Poitier (or servile like Tillie de Sanford.)

It’s Hollywood’s job to tell stories that simplify and polish what can be complicated and ugly issues.

The enlightened among us should reject that.

It’s been 55 years, and black people across the country are still dealing with the insecurities perpetuated by the perfect Prentice of Poitiers.

Too many of us feel the pressure of perfection, only to realize that the closer we get, the more intense the scrutiny. Do you remember the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama? First, racists in Republican attire attempted to discredit Obama’s background as a community organizer. When that didn’t work, they tried to mock him as an aspiring messiah.

Poitier, himself, saw “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” winning two Oscars from eight nominations, despite not being recognized. He was the undisputed star of the supposedly historic film, but he wasn’t even nominated.

It’s too much.

Prejudices make it even more difficult to reach our potential

Prentice had to be impeccable, otherwise he might have been shunned by the Draytons and American movie audiences for not speaking well enough or dressing well enough or earning enough money or because he wasn’t handsome enough or had holes in his socks. .

And even today, when a black person is questioned about their qualifications or arrested by the police or otherwise subjected to the whims of white approval, it is necessary to exclude all factors to leave racism, and racism alone , as guilty.

But we should know better.

At this point, we should assume that the mistreatment of blacks by whites in mainstream society is racially based until we can prove otherwise.

Black people have been part of this nation for how many hundreds of years? Yet, how many of us have ever been US senators? Or presidents? Or professional football coaches?

How many of us run newsrooms? Where to direct the universities? Or do you run large companies?

We should just know that inherent biases make it harder for black people to reach the peak of their potential.

Why don’t we let schools talk about race?

Or at least we would if white liberals showed some guts and fought against so-called “conservatives” to make sure conversations about race happen in schools where young people can find common ground before that latent stereotypes calcify in the harsh racism that holds back so much opportunity and progress.

It has already been said that a house divided cannot stand.

How can we allow the foundation of our nation to be further compromised by race – race!? – 55 years after Poitier brilliantly showed us how damaging it would be to demand impossibly high standards from black people for matters of sheer tolerance and expediency?

Guess who’s not coming to this dinner?


Our modern cultural landscape should infuriate anyone with common sense.

Contact Moore at [email protected] or 602-444-2236. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @SayingMoore.

There’s a lot of Moore where that came from. Subscribe to receive videos, columns, opinions and analysis from the award-winning Arizona Republic team.


About Author

Comments are closed.