First of all, this post is less about Poitier and more about what has happened since him. Second of all, it kind or rambles, but it rambles through key points.
Third of all, I chose to mention Portier today because I have a particular fondness for him. My mother told me a story growing up that whenever someone from our Southern hometown would take offense at my name (“Sydney’s a boy’s name!”), she would tell them that she named me after Sidney Poitier. This would of course shut the offended right up–racial lines still being what they were (and still are) in the early nineties in certain areas of the South.
Of course, in 1964, on this day, Sidney Poitier became the first black to win an Oscar for best actor. Starring in many roles that highlighted racial tensions and racial hatred, he was part of the vanguard that pushed African-Americans and blacks into the sphere of Hollywood that white America guarded protectively. It’s hard to argue that.
However, there is also something dark that modern America’s brand of remembrance, and the trajectory of Poitier’s career, reveals about racism in today’s culture. It highlights the hypocritical nature of Hollywood. Critics and directors love to say how brave and beautiful that African-Americans and blacks are when they take on roles that highlight racial issues; how important it is to the directors themselves that they bring the “injustice” to light.
However, they refuse to provide minority actors with any roles that are “normal.” They’re willing to acknowledge the travesties and inhumanity forced upon African-Americans and blacks (at least some of them), but they’re unwilling to let them move on from it and are still branding them as the “other.” This branding is similar to what Mark and Ovesey did in their work The Mark of Oppression (1951). Though they acknowledged racism crime against humanity, the also stated that it was too late to do anything about it–the African-American psyche was forever damaged.
This is rather convenient foundation from which Hollywood build their non-representation of modern day racism. If it doesn’t exist except for a leftover in the African-American psyche, why do they have to give credence to it?. Some African-American writers are taking control of the narrative: Barry Jenkins with Moonlight (2016) and Jordan Peele with Get Out (2016). But we can’t ignore white America’s reaction to Justin Simien’s Netflix-series adaption of Dear White People, based on his film of the same name. White people literally boycotted Netflix.
Not only does white America largely refuse to acknowledge any part that it has played in actively continuing racism and oppression into today, it refuses to acknowledge that a problem really exists at all. When it is acknowledged as a problem, it is rewritten as if it was all some sort of huge misunderstanding, that a pretty, extremely privileged, girl can solve by sharing a Pepsi.