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Actor Sidney Poitier was a force for change on and off the screen

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Sidney Poitier came to America from the Bahamas when Jim Crow laws were in effect and racial segregation was a painful daily reality. As the first Black man to win an Oscar, he challenged that reality on screen. But he also used his name and growing stardom to push for change off screen. Poitier died on Thursday at age 94. I spoke with Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, about Poitier's political and personal legacy.

MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Dignity, elegance, sophistication. His presence countered these stereotypical images of Black men. You know, Poitier wins the first best actor award, but he wasn't the first African American to win an Oscar. You know, that went to Hattie McDaniel, who won an award for playing a domestic - a maid. And as a young Black man, and even now at age 56, his image really was a blueprint on how to carry myself in the world and not have to trade off on historical stereotypes of Blackness and Black masculinity in particular, but also with a sense of pride, you know, that went with what it meant to be Black American.

RASCOE: When you say dignity and pride, like, what does that look like?

NEAL: You know, part of it was this kind of stoicism that he had, his unwillingness to react in a way on screen that would empower, you know, white racism and white supremacists and all these other forces that were against him. That most famous scene that so many folks talked about after his death - "In The Heat Of The Night" when the white man slaps him in the face and he, very quickly, without thinking, slaps him back. And for me, what's so significant about that scene wasn't even the slap, but the way, with very little reaction, he just simply shrugged his shoulders to make sure that his suit jacket continued to fit the right way.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

NEAL: And that's what I meant by a kind of dignity about the moment that wouldn't allow the moment to overtake the power of what he was trying to express at that time.

RASCOE: And he was an advocate for independence for the Bahamas, where he grew up, and also a prominent figure in the civil rights movement here in the U.S., where he participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and also helped to fund some of the Freedom Rides at great, you know, personal threat to himself. Like, how did he weave his identity into his activism?

NEAL: You know, this is the thing. Poitier said himself that his success came because it was just the moment for someone to break through. When we talk about the civil rights movement and his contributions to that, you know, he had a choice, as so many Black entertainers and celebrities did at the time, to not contribute to that moment because they wanted to protect whatever success they had. That wasn't Poitier's mindset, right? And he was of a generation of Black folks who were willing to sacrifice the kind of material success they had and obviously the critical success they had to contribute to something like the civil rights movement, right?

And it wasn't just the money that they raised, but their presence was just as important, that those folks on the front line of those marches and those grassroots rallies - you know, when they saw Dick Gregory or Sidney Poitier or Ossie Davis or Nina Simone, they understood that the most visible and powerful Black folks were there with them on those front lines. In some cases, they literally were on those front lines.

RASCOE: Like, even though he obviously contributed, there are times where, you know, he didn't go out of his way to necessarily become a political figure, right? Do you think he considered himself an activist?

NEAL: I always thought that - and Poitier has suggested this himself - that the role that he played on screen was political. Those images that he represented on screen challenged, you know, and disrupted acceptable representations of Black folks at that time. But when you look at that great year of 1967 - you know, "In The Heat Of The Night," "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," and, of course, "To Sir, With Love" - you know, these three very different films dealing with interracial relationships were among the most successful, highest-grossing films of 1967, right? So he showed, for Hollywood and all these folks who were coming after him, that there was a path to do this successfully without having to engage in those kinds of stereotypical images. And that in itself was of political importance.

RASCOE: I have to ask you, though, because he did face criticism - right? - about - even though this is more of a today term, it was respectability politics, right? Like, this idea that he thought that Black people had to look and talk and be "dignified," quote-unquote, and that that is, you know, in itself restrictive or - and also making yourself more palatable to white people.

NEAL: You know, there is a bit of revisionist history then. Sidney Poitier - the roles he played in the 1960s reflected the kind of space that he could create in Hollywood. You know, we weren't going to see tremendous militancy on Hollywood screens, you know, in the 1960s and '70s, right? And it's really because he opened that door to create these other kinds of moments that we could start to see more diverse representations of Blackness - right? - even as he himself might've been boxed in to certain kinds of images of Black respectability.

RASCOE: Professor Mark Anthony Neal of Duke University, thank you so much for your time.

NEAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.