Monday, February 20, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: 7 Amazing Facts from Sidney Poitier’s Memoir The Measure of a Man

This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography
by Sidney Poitier
Paperback ISBN: 9780061357909
272 pages

“You don't have to become something you're not to be better than you were.” — Sidney Poitier

We lost a bright shining light when Sidney Poitier passed away last year He left behind a legacy of amazing acting work. Films like The Defiant Ones (1958), A Raisin in the Sun (1959), Lilies of the Field (1963), which earned him an Oscar, the first ever awarded to a black male actor, A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir, With Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) defined his career, challenged our notions of race and opened doors for many actors to come. In addition to his accomplishments as an actor, he was also a terrific writer. He published a handful of memoirs including This Life in 1980 and two more recent memoirs Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter and The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. His last book, published in 2013, was a science fiction novel entitled Montaro Caine.

In the 240+ pages of The Measure of a Man, Poitier does a lot of self-reflection. He contemplates growing up on Cat Island in the Bahamas, his treacherous journey to the United States, becoming an actor in New York City, his tumultuous love life, the many obstacles he faced as a black man and of course his amazing movie career. Let’s take a look at 7 amazing facts from this incredible memoir.

Fact #1 Sidney Poitier didn’t see his own reflection until he was 11 years old.

Growing up poor on Cat Island in the Bahamas, young Poitier didn’t have access to mirrors or any type of glass. Poitier recalls, there were “No glass windows, no glass doors, no stores with glass fronts…” Any reflection came from ocean or pond water, the sheen from metallic objects. Little did he know that the image of himself that he could not see would go on to have a major impact on the world around him. When he and his family moved to Nassau, Poitier finally saw his reflection. But it would still be years before he would be exposed to the effects of racism. He wrote, “I didn’t think about the color of my skin. Not any more than I would have bothered to wonder why the sand was white or the sky was blue.”

Fact #2 Poitier almost died by drowning on two separate occasions. 

Poitier recounts that as a child in the village of Arthur’s Town on Cat Island, there was a “ditch one hundred feet long, six feet deep, dug from the sea to an inland salt pond.” This was known among the locals as a death trap and the young Poitier felt determined to conquer it. He made a perilous attempt at opening a trap door through a tunnel but was not able to. It was high tide and if he had unlatched the door he would have surely drowned.

Decades later, while on a trip to Acapulco with his friend and agent Marty Baum went for a swim while their wives stayed behind on the shore. They swam out and didn’t realize that the ocean floor would drop off so quickly. They got caught up in a dangerous current. Poitier remembered, “then the ocean rose up beneath us. It wasn’t a wave on the surface of the water. It was a raging, thundering swell… The momentum of that angry wave yanked us free from the undercurrents that were pulling at our legs and flung us violently into the shallows of the beach.”

Fact #3 A bus station attendant convinced Poitier to move to New York.

Well, sort of. Poitier had a rough time of it when he moved to Miami. Poitier wrote “I knew that Miami wasn’t for me, because Miami designated me, by law and social custom, as being undeserving of human consideration.” He wanted to get as far away from the city as possible. He asked the bus station attendant how far each destination was and what the cost of each ticket was. Two trip options, Chattanooga and Birmingham, were just too close for comfort. He needed to be as far away as possible. The attendant said that “the next bus is going to New York” and that it would be “eleven dollars and thirty-five cents.” Poitier bought a one way ticket and never looked back.

Fact #4 A waiter helped Poitier learn to read proficiently.

Tired of working as a dishwasher in New York City, Poitier decided to give acting a go. In his memoir he writes, “I had no training in acting. I could barely read! And to top it off I had a thick, singsong Bahamian accent.” After approaching a casting agent at the American Negro Theatre, he was told in not so nice terms that he didn’t have what it took to become an actor. Poitier was too proud to listen to the man’s hurtful rejection. “Whatever it was, I knew I had to change it, or life was going to be mighty grim.” Poitier recounts that an older Jewish waiter at the restaurant where he worked offered to help him during breaks. “He became my tutor, as well as my guardian angel of the moment. Each night we sat in the same booth in that quiet area of the restaurant and he helped me learn to read."

Fact #5 Poitier softened his accent by listening to the radio.

Next he had to work on his thick Bahamian accent. Poitier had a disastrous start at the American Negro Theatre after he covered for fellow Caribbean actor Harry Belafonte. He knew that if this acting gig was going anywhere he had to improve on all fronts. Every night while practicing his reading skills, he would sound out syllables of difficult words to get better at enunciating them. He would also listen to radio shows, mimicking how the announcers spoke in order soften his accent. Poitier didn’t give up and strove to become a better actor. When he heard 20th Century Fox was casting for No Way Out (1950) he jumped at the chance. He got the part and a star was born…

Fact #6 Poitier had to be smuggled into South Africa to make Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).

No Way Out director Joseph Mankiewicz put Poitier in touch with Zoltán Korda who was then casting for Cry, the Beloved Country (1951). Korda flew Poitier out to London for an audition and he got the part. Poitier and Canada Lee, in his final role, play two priests in South Africa during the early years of apartheid. In order for Korda to get Poitier and Lee into the country, he had to tell immigration offers that the actors were actually indentured servants. While Poitier doesn’t go into detail about this, he does reflect on the experience of making Cry, the Beloved Country by saying “It was heady stuff, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that, not only was I one lucky youngster, but something more had to be at play here.” Some time after Poitier was asked to publicly denounce co-star Canada Lee because of his political beliefs and Poitier refused.

Fact #7 Poitier believed he was a catalyst for change even when others criticized his complacency.

In the memoir Poitier writes, “Social movement doesn’t come all at once, just as it doesn’t come out of nowhere.” He reflected on a New York Times article entitled “Why Do White Folks Love Sidney Poitier So?” Poitier was criticized for playing gentle characters rather than ones who chose force or to a greater extreme violence to make change. He writes “In essence, I was being taken to task for playing exemplary human beings.” These characters include those in To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, all of whom in the face of conflict remain steadfast. Poitier’s subversiveness was more subtle. He found strength in positivity. It was his form of self-preservation but it was also his way of making change. He went on to say, “simply put, I’ve learned that I must find positive outlets for anger or it will destroy me.”

The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier is available through a variety of book retailers and can also be borrowed from your local library through Overdrive.

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