A long look at life from Sidney Poitier

May 28, 2000|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff

"The Measure of a Man," by Sidney Poitier. Harper. 272 pages. $26.

This is not the clench-jawed growl of Mister Tibbs. Nor is it the elegant patter of the unimpeachably perfect doctor who is coming to dinner.

This is the casual cadence of Sidney Poitier, just a guy taking stock of the mountains and valleys of his accomplishments. He's preaching the lessons of manhood,and the tension between rage and restraint.

At 73, he's a survivor of prostate cancer and hard knocks, fatherhood and fame. He's at the stage now where he's adding up what you can take with you. He sounds like a grandfather whose war stories always wind up as lectures on how to live.

Celebrity autobiography is not my cup of tea. Poitier's does not change my mind about the genre, but I can appreciate his book's place on bestseller lists. He is a towering figure in film and in American culture, a barrier-breaker who gave a generation landmark images of successful, honorable, compassionate, complex African-American men. He remains the only black actor ever to win the Best Actor Academy Award (for "Lilies of the Field" in 1963).

His storytelling succeeds when he draws back the curtain, revealing his grit in his struggle to support himself as an immigrant in America, first in Jim Crow Florida and then unforgiving New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, celebrity provided no shelter from racist workers on movie sets or studio executives fearful of racial themes and suspicious of Poitier's association with actor/political activist, Paul Robeson.

This first fruitful segment of his movie career was derailed by a change in public tastes: As the civil rights movement boiled over, Poitier's early roles seemed, to some critics, too whitebread, too accommodating. Now they are classics: He gets the last laugh.

This memoir is really Poitier's restrained reply to those who misjudged his choices and motives. He seethed, but he excelled in many ways at self-control. How did he tame his rage? With intellect, and a desire to honor his parents and his humble upbringing on Cat Island, Bahamas. With well-honed work ethic and social concern, which inspired his own activism behind the scenes and in front of the camera.

He spends quite a bit of time suggesting he has not always lived as honorably as the characters he has portrayed (but don't expect him to catalogue his sins). He acknowledges the pain he caused his children when he left their mother, but he doesn't dish: In fact, he holds back so much that at times he undercuts the power of his message.

Poitier's book is thematic in the way of uplift and self-help books, with chapters on self-esteem and self-determination framed as parables, drawn from his life and work. Thus, the subtitle fits: It is "a spiritual autobiography."

It is not exclusively a film memoir, though there's enough name dropping and thank yous and homage paid to the much-maligned black actors who caught hell as they paved the way for a Poitier to take the screen. I longed for more anecdotes from the making of his beloved films. My two favorites are "Lilies of the Field" and "To Sir With Love." Also largely unaddressed: his directing career in the 1970s, his hiatus in the 1980s, his return to acting in the 1990s.

He's caught up in the sermon. Help! I feel like the choir being preached to.

Jean Thompson is The Sun's assistant managing editor for staff development. She has been a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and -- for 11 years -- The Sun. She collects papers and photographs about African-American history.

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