How Sidney Poitier paved the way for Barack Obama

With his cool, dignified eloquence, Sidney Poitier primed the white US imagination for its first black president. But thanks to his roles in such films as Who is Coming to Dinner, he was also accused of being a white person’s fantasy of blackness

The year of 1967 was one of love and hate in the US. In San Francisco, 100,000 hippies gathered during the Summer of Love, while 165 race riots blazed through the nation’s cities, leaving 83 dead. It was also the year when Sidney Poitier released three films that would make him a megastar. Poitier, who was born in Miami to parents from the Bahamas, had made his screen debut in 1950 in No Way Out; in 1964 he had become the first black person to win an Academy Award for best actor – for his performance in Lilies in the Field – and by 1967 his screen persona was well established. He was smart-suited and clean-shaven, dignified and graceful, neither dangerously defiant nor offensively deferential; masculine but strangely sexless. This persona echoed the manner of his friend Martin Luther King and, like Dr King, Poitier was elevated into an icon. He became, in the words of Revisiting Poitier, an excellent collection of essays on his life and legacy, “the bourgeois wish-fulfilling symbol of a race”. Poitier’s three 1967 films would come to define his entire career: To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, directed by Stanley Kramer and written by William Rose, is an exploration of the limits of racial tolerance disguised as a romantic comedy. It is boy meets girl, boy meets girl’s racist parents, boy gets girl. Poitier plays John Prentice, a black doctor, who has recently fallen in love with Joanna, a young white woman played by Katharine Houghton. The couple have only known each other for 10 days when they arrive at her parents’ home to announce their engagement and to ask for approval for the marriage. The parents, played by Katharine Hepburn (Houghton’s aunt in real life) and Spencer Tracy, are forced to examine their attitudes, supposedly liberal, when confronted with the prospect of a black son-in-law. The film proceeds through conversation-heavy set-pieces as Joanna’s father – her mother is quickly won over by the charming Prentice – challenges his daughter’s fiance to explain how they will react to the inevitable obstacles their marriage will face.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night. Photograph: Moviestore collection LTD
Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night. Photograph: Moviestore collection LTD Photograph: pr

Watching the film today, it’s fascinating to see how much it strains to reassure its audience even as it articulates their anxieties. As Kim Warren notes in Poitier Revisited, “the couple first meets in Hawaii, a state geographically disconnected from the continental United States, and they are on their way to the symbolically and politically neutral country of Switzerland”. The implication is that they will soon be some other nation’s problem. It is also made clear that the anxiety is shared by both sets of parents – the fathers, actually – and the most severe criticism of Prentice comes from Tillie, the black maid. “You ain’t foolin’ me for a minute,” she tells him. “I see what you are. You’re one of those smooth-talkin’ smart-ass niggers just out for all you can get with your black power and all that other trouble-making nonsense.”

“Have you thought what people would say about you?” Joanna’s father asks Prentice. “In 16 or 17 states you’d be breakin’ the law. You’d be criminals.” “And say they changed the law?” replies Prentice. That exchange demonstrates how the film reflects the changing realities of interracial relationships at the time. In the same year that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released, the US supreme court had ruled that states could no longer enforce laws that banned marriage on racial grounds. That decision was made after Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and her white husband, had been arrested and given a suspended jail sentence for violating a state law that prohibited marriage between white and black people. The court ruled on 12 June 1967. In September that year, Time magazine featured on its cover a young married couple, Peggy Rusk and Guy Smith; Peggy was white and Guy was black. “Mr and Mrs Guy Smith: an interracial wedding,” read the words below the image. The expressions on the faces of the newly married couple were ambiguous. She is smiling but he looks apprehensive, mindful perhaps of the words of the judge who had sentenced the Lovings: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents … the fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix.”

Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Photograph: Columbia/Allstar
Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Photograph: COLUMBIA/Allstar/COLUMBIA

Poitier perfected playing parts that, in the words of Poitier Revisited, depicted “the accomplished, well-spoken, aspiring, mild-mannered black man that America ought not to fear, that the black middle class ought to be proud of, that racist white America would have trouble hating”. The film-makers created for him a character who was almost superhumanly gifted. Prentice had studied at Yale, worked for the World Health Organisation and is on his way to Geneva. The film further reassures by ridding him of any troublesome sexuality. At the start of the film his first wife and child have tragically died. The only kiss Prentice and Joanna share is visible in the rear-view mirror, and he makes it clear that he has yet to sleep with her. Poitier was condemned to asexuality in many of his films; one African-American critic referred to him as a “clean cut eunuch in the white world”.

Poitier’s defence was that his films were “interesting, marvellous fables” and he was able positively to harness the fame and success they generated. Along with Harry Belafonte and Jackie Robinson, he funded the African American Students Association, which provided university scholarships to Kenyan students. Among the students who benefited from the programme was a Kenyan called Barack Obama, who would later marry an American woman, and have a son with the same name. It is impossible to ignore the parallels between Poitier and Obama. When, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Joanna’s father asks Prentice if he has thought about the consequences of having children, Prentice tells him that “she feels that every single one of our children will be President of the United States, and they’ll all have colourful administrations”. “What people saw in candidate and President Obama,” Poitier Revisited argues, “they had seen decades before in the Poitier persona: cool, eloquence, genuine warmth, exceptionality, and ambiguity of identity. It was clear … Poitier had primed the white American imagination … for the historic election of the first black President of the United States.”

Obama, elected with such hope and euphoria, has been accused of insufficient concern for the plight of African Americans. Poitier, too, was accused of being a white person’s fantasy of blackness. In a 1967 New York Times article entitled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?”, he was dismissed as “the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero, a good guy in a totally white world, with no wife, no sweetheart, no woman to love or kiss, helping the white man solve the white man’s problems.” The assassination of King and the rise of blaxploitation left Poitier out of time. Yet despite the cartoonish perfection of Prentice, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is still relevant. I first saw it just before I introduced my then girlfriend to my family. We were a mixed-race couple and we rented the film as a humorous acknowledgement of a fraught situation. Anyone who thinks it is dated has never tried taking a white Christian girlfriend home to their Muslim parents.

• Poitier Revisited, edited by Ian Gregory Stachan and Mia Mask, is published by Bloomsbury.


Sarfraz Manzoor

The GuardianTramp

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