Celluloid Style: Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier wearing a blue cardigan
Image credit: James Joel / CC BY-ND 2.0

One of the great joys in my life is going to see old movies at my local arthouse theatre. Ideally, I like it best when they’re screened on a quiet afternoon in the middle of the week when it’s just me and a handful of cinephile pensioners. Nothing beats the thrill of skipping work to take in a film. 

I’ve gone to see all kinds of different movies this way, but often the ones that stick with me are the old films I didn’t know anything about before stepping into the theatre. There’s a lot to be said for seeing an old favourite on the big screen, but discovering a classic or a hidden gem for the first time? There’s nothing quite like it. 

On one of these fortuitous trips to the pictures, taken on a brisk Monday afternoon in April earlier this year, I went to see a 35mm screening of Edge of the City, a 1957 drama I had never heard of. The film is about the relationship between two men who become friends while working as longshoremen in New York City. Because they are of different races, however, their relationship and welfare come under severe threat in their mean 1950s milieu. 

I sat wrapped for each one of the film’s 85 minutes of runtime, not least because it featured in the main roles two filmmakers I never seem to get enough of in the forms of John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier. The latter —who is also the reason I bring all of this up — is as magnetic in Edge of the City as he has been in every one of the onscreen appearances of his I’ve seen over the years. 

Of course, some people feel that his pioneering Civil Rights-era movies — like To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, all three of which came out in 1967 — haven’t aged all that well, or that they didn’t go far enough in the boundaries they pushed. Per Poitier’s New York Times obituary from earlier this year, ‘critics […] would later accuse him of bowing and scraping before the white establishment’. But, the piece goes on to suggest, doing so would be ‘to dismiss Mr. Poitier’s longstanding, outspoken advocacy for racial justice and the civil rights movement, most visibly as part of a Hollywood contingent that took part in the 1963 March on Washington.’

Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston at the Civil Rights March on Washington
Sidney Poitier at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. with Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston
Image credit: National Archives at College Park / Public domain

Quarrelling over the politics of his body of work also risks one overlooking his remarkable talents as an actor. Poitier was always a commanding presence: handsome, charismatic, determined, and blessed with a voice that has you hanging on every syllable. The sum of his talent and hard work earned him the first Academy Award for a Black performer in the best-actor category for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. In his prime, he was also one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and once ranked fifth among male actors in Box Office magazine’s poll of theatre owners and critics behind only Richard Burton, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin and John Wayne.

Poitier’s achievements were all the more remarkable when you consider the circumstances that led to him becoming an actor. He grew up in the Bahamas, born on February 20, 1927 in Miami, where his parents would travel to sell their tomato crop. Before moving from Cat Island to Nassau at the age of ten, he had never so much as seen a car or looked in a mirror. By the age of 12, he had quit school and became a waterboy for a group of pick-and-shovel labourers and, at the age of 14, was sent by his parents to live in Miami with one of his older brothers to stop him from falling into delinquency. In less than a year, however, he fled to New York with just $3 and some change in his pocket. From here he took several odd, low-wage jobs, saving up nickels so that he could sleep in pay toilets on winter nights. He was shot in the leg during a race riot in Harlem, in 1943 he lied about his age to join the army, he then feigned a mental disorder to get a discharge and return to NYC, and then finally turned to acting when he read in the newspaper that the American Negro Theater was looking for performers. It took him a while to find his feet — he worked as a dishwasher while improving his reading and practised speaking English by listening to the radio — but eventually got a place in the theatre’s acting programme after first working there as an unpaid janitor. His break came when another actor, one Harry Belafonte, didn’t show up to a rehearsal, at which point Mr Poitier took the stage and won a part in a 1946 production of Lysistrata that jump-started his acting career. 

While Poitier’s career achievements have been roundly celebrated — including a host of acting awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a knighthood — his towering status weirdly makes it all too easy to forget just how well he dressed. While in his childhood as the youngest of nine children he wore clothes made from flour sacks, once his ship had come in Poiter never looked anything other than impeccable. In the early years of his success as an actor he embraced the Ivy League aesthetic that fellow Black artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, James Baldwin, and others were making their own. It was, as the subtitle of Jason Jules and Graham Marsh’s book on the subject, Black Ivy, so deftly put it, a revolution in style and Poitier was among the vanguard.

He wore all the classics — button-down shirts, knit and rep ties, blazers, grey flannel suits — and, as is often the case with natty thespians, some of his best looks were immortalised on screen. He particularly excelled at wearing suits. As film critic Elvis Mitchel once pointed out in Vanity Fair, ‘He’s never gotten his due as a style icon […] You hear the talk about Cary Grant and Steve McQueen, but I don’t think anybody wore a suit better than Sidney Poitier’. Grey suits, in particular, were his forte. In the same Vanity Fair piece, Laura Jacobs goes on to point out that Poitier ‘wears a gray flannel suit as if it were a form of lightweight knight’s armor—double-vented in To Sir, with Love; single-vented in In the Heat of the Night; no vents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

It wasn’t all blazers and button-downs, though. In 1963’s Lilies of the Field, for example, he looks every bit as dapper in a rugged Lee jeans-and-jacket combo and a laid-back Aloha shirt and sunglasses. What’s more is that Poitier kept it up all throughout his life. While some style icons tend to let things slip a little in their later years, Poitier always looked deftly turned out (and not to mention impressively trim) for the duration of his long life and career. He passed away earlier this year at the age of 94, but with a documentary about his life, entitled Sidney, in theatres and on Apple TV+ this week, there is the chance again to enjoy the pleasure of seeing Sidney Poitier on screen. Given my aforementioned love of doing just that, I will most certainly be watching — for the clothing just as much as for the man himself. 

Sidney Poitier in black tie
Image credit: Walt Disney Television / CC BY-ND 2.0

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