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An exclusive interview: Sidney Poitier

December 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Cover Story, Feature

by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud

Sidney PoitierInterviewing a legend can be a daunting task, but it helps when the subject is as accomplished and gentlemanly as Sidney Poitier.
A native of the Bahamas, Poitier was already recognized as a gifted stage actor when made his screen debut with the 1950 drama “No Way Out” — in a role (as a doctor treating a white bigot) that catapulted him to a leading man status never before enjoyed by a black actor. Subsequent work solidified his place in black history and American cinema: With “The Defiant Ones” in 1958, Poitier won his first Academy Award nomination, scoring his first Oscar five years later for “Lilies of the Field.” In turn, commercial success allowed him to challenge conventions and address social issues with lead roles in “A Raisin in the Sun” and the 1967 classics “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “To Sir with Love.”
Also a bestselling author (the 2001 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” and 2008’s “Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter”), business pioneer (sitting for five years on The Walt Disney Co. board of directors) and political titan (he serves as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), Poitier’s genuine humility and soothing manner were an indispensable asset to our recent discussion about his life and career.

Mr. Poitier, to what do you attribute your personal image as a gentleman and man of distinction?
Actually, I have no answer for that. I don’t perceive myself as that. I perceive myself as a guy who is an actor. And I have been quite successful at that.

What are your thoughts on the state of black America?
The thoughts I have about black America are probably that same as others. Also, it depends on the context of the question. I am where black people are. We are a collective. We are a particular culture within the context of the United States of America, which is our country. And by the way, a country in which we have done remarkably well. We have made great accomplishments.

President Barack Obama is an example of the great strides we have made as a people. What do you think about the job he is doing?
I think that he is doing wonderfully well. I think he is doing infinitely better than his opposition paints him. His success is good for the entire country, and I applaud him for his dedication. Of course, there are differences of opinions between the two political parties, but that has always been the case.

How do you feel about Hollywood’s impact on the world?
I think Hollywood’s impact on the world is the same that it has always been. Hollywood is a business and an industry which has never been interested in politics. The politics and social disposition of the country has never been at the forefront. Recently, I have seen a change as it relates to black people in the industry. I see many actors in Washington, and we have a lot of strong wonderful actors and some writers who are making great momentum. I would like to see more writers and actors participating in the process. But we do have wonderful representation in Hollywood from actors like Morgan Freeman, who are having opportunities in the game. There used to be a time when there were none of us.

How did you feel when so many actors helped to raise awareness and money for Haiti?
I thought it was wonderful. Many people responded to the disaster in Haiti — and not just black people. There were white, black, Hispanics and other people of ethnicities and other cultures that came forward with aid and assistance for Haiti. The response to Haiti was fantastic!

What are your thoughts on the state of America?
I have my views like everyone else in the world. My own view is that the country has what it has always had — a war between the political parties. This is a part of the democratic process. We have come a long way. I am happy that as black people we are participating in the process. There was a time when we were not allowed to vote, and to live where we could afford — during and before the civil rights period. We now have worked as a part of the solution to correct those things, and we were successful at it along with a great number of people who were not African-American. There were whites, Hispanics helping with our crusade for equal rights that was supported by many people of many colors and the end result, especially now, is a growing democracy. None of what I have said should be viewed as nirvana. The whole still has some ways to go in certain areas, in certain cultures. There are 6.5 billion people on the planet. In the collective, we are a single family. Whatever our differences, we have to continue to improve the culture so that all people are able to function and reach for a more improved democracy that includes all members of the human family. We must embrace living within the context of others from all over the world. If we don’t recognize that we are a part of a single human family — regardless of race, religion or social status, if we don’t see ourselves as that single family, we will certainly, ultimately not survive.

What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
I have done a great number of things. I have had a great number of opportunities. Now, it’s time for me to close my book and sensibly — in a manner that leaves some things undone. But, that is life itself. We live and we die and are meant by nature to not be forever lasting. We all want to go on forever, but that is not going to happen. The reality in life and death is the in-between is all we have. We try to make the best of whatever we have from the time of our birth until our death. At the end of it we will be gone. While you are here, try to do the best you can with your life and be faithful to your values and principles. Be kind and respectful of others.


One Response to “An exclusive interview: Sidney Poitier”
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