Bright light, indeed

Preview: `American Masters' profile helps explain Sidney Poitier's success as man and actor.

February 02, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Nobody does profiles of performers and artists like PBS' "American Masters." Compared to this series, the History Channel's "Biography" portraits are cut-and-paste jobs.

"Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light," which airs tonight on public television, isn't in a league with the great "American Masters" profiles like last year's "Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note." But it is close enough that it is well worth going out of your way to see. No matter how much you know about Poitier, I guarantee you will wind up knowing more and seeing him in new ways.

The film opens with Poi- tier telling a marvelous anecdote about his first trip as a small child to a movie theater on tiny Cat Island in the Bahamas, where he was born and raised until the age of 15. The movie he saw was "Trail of Empire," which featured cowboys, horses and a cattle drive.

Poitier says he had no idea, as a child, how movies were made. He watched the film not only mesmerized by the larger-than-life action and movement on the screen, but also wondering how they got all those horses and cattle into the theater.

After the film ended, he says, he went to the back of the theater and sat on a small hill a safe distance away watching the back door, waiting to see the cowboys, steers and horses leaving the theater.

Yes, actors are great at making you believe their lies through the passion with which they tell them. And who can reinvent their pasts better than celebrities, who have been asked a million times by reporters to retell the narrative and add something new?

But, even if Poitier's making it all up -- and I don't think he is -- director Lee Grant still has chosen this wonderful way to open the profile with her camera tight on the famous face while he tells a story that reminds us of the artifice of the screen image. "One Bright Light" explores Poitier's screen image, and then goes beyond it to give us the man.

In terms of the image, what a fabulous body of work. Among his 55 films: "No Way Out," "Blackboard Jungle," "A Raisin in the Sun," "To Sir With Love," "The Defiant Ones," "Lilies of the Field" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." He is still the only black American to receive a Best Actor or Actress Academy Award.

"Sidney invented the African-American in film," says composer and producer Quincy Jones. "He invented it and then he perfected it."

In terms of the man, the film answers a question most TV biographies would not even think to ask: Was there something special in Poitier's character that accounted for his being the pioneer for black actors in Hollywood?

The answer is found back on Cat Island. Poitier points out that the island was 90 percent black, so for the first 15 years of his life he was part of the dominant culture.

"I was already formed when I came to this country. I had a sense of my entitlement," he says, adding that he would never think of himself as a minority even when American culture tried to pigeonhole him him that way.

The trip back to Cat is typical of the commitment in time and resources that "American Masters" and Grant made. And, yes, this is the same Lee Grant who appeared as an actress with Poitier in "In the Heat of the Night." She has been directing documentaries, TV movies and feature films for more than a decade, and she is wonderful.

Grant's film takes on the criticism leveled in the wake of the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X assassinations that Poitier was somehow too passive politically. In a recent interview, Grant called the criticism "unfair," and pointed out the role Poitier played in overturning colonial rule in the Bahamas as evidence of his political commitment. In the film, Grant traces the criticism back to a nasty and ill-informed New York Times article.

In the end, "One Bright Light" is mainly a celebration of Poitier, and that's as it should be. The film holds Poitier up to the light, and, jewel that he is, we are dazzled by the sight.

`American Masters'

What: "Sidney Poitier: One Bright Light"

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: A profile worthy of Poitier's great talent

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