An Attempt to Reconcile Everything: A Warm December, a film starring and directed by Sidney Poitier, and the Legacy of the Great Actor

Poitier, as an exemplary man, was expected to reconcile what society could not

by Daniel Garrett Volume 16, Issue 9-10 / October 2012 19 minutes (4625 words)

A Warm December
Directed by Sidney Poitier
First Artists, 1972

Whether he was playing a student or a teacher, a policeman or a prisoner, a polished professional or a desperate working man, a jazz musician or handyman or doctor, Sidney Poitier, a man of Caribbean heritage, was the image and sound of African-American intellect and pride: in the films Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, For Love of Ivy, and A Warm December, Sidney Poitier, following and expanding the path of men such as Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, was a matinee idol who could compete with Tony Curtis and Paul Newman. One watched Sidney Poitier and saw initiative and intuition, humor and warmth, passion and understanding: he was a singular individual, a dark-skinned man as an American ideal, a man of virtues.

In Sidney Poitier’s A Warm December, a film Poitier directed and stars in based on a screenplay by Lawrence Roman, Poitier plays a successful doctor who develops clinics for the poor, and takes his daughter on vacation to England, and while in London becomes involved with the attractive but ill niece of an African ambassador, the niece played by Esther Anderson. The doctor, an intelligent and warm fellow, the African-American friend of a married Englishman doctor with children, also races a motorcycle, and is an avid dancer. The film A Warm December allows for wonderful sightseeing of the western capital as well as visits to an African art gallery, formal music performance, and restaurant. The motion picture acknowledges both wealth and poverty, and it involves the experiences of adults and children, specifically parents and their children. In the figure that Poitier represents, as well as the screenplay in general, is an attempt to reconcile facts and qualities usually seen in opposition: among them, the old and the new, the rich and the poor, and the intellectual and the physical. The film is an exemplar of integration as an ideal: the healthy, fine, thoughtful blending of people and realities. And yet, the beautiful, beloved, and mysterious young woman in the film, an African woman who is sometimes in modern western dress and other times in traditional African garb, is ill with a disease that most often strikes blacks: sickle cell anemia. So much of the prejudice and stigma attached to blacks have been erased or negotiated away, but this fact of biology remains—and the fatal fact is understood, but it makes the promising relationship between the man and the woman, the African-American and the African, difficult if not impossible. It is the film’s rare troubled reference to an irresolvable reality, as the film is full of so much progress it is nearly a fantasy.

History is what it is, but there is more than one way of responding to it, whether that history is slavery and social discrimination or power and plenty. Sidney Poitier could play angry, sullen, but that was not what he was known or loved for. Poitier was admired—and his audience wanted to admire him. Other actors in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were appreciated—such as Harry Belafonte and John Amos, Roscoe Lee Brown, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, Robert Hooks, James Earl Jones, Brock Peters, Richard Pryor, Richard Roundtree, and Billy Dee Williams—but Sidney Poitier was in a league of his own. Poitier was an artist whose artistic integrity could be compared with that of Miles Davis or James Baldwin, but his temperament was more forgiving. It is hard to imagine the film careers of Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Don Cheadle, and Will Smith without Sidney Poitier’s example. However, despite Denzel Washington’s reflexive heroism and Will Smith’s pervasive charm, it is possible that those men have been allowed to explore more of the human contradictions that Poitier was expected to ignore, repress, or easily reconcile.

Writing about Sidney Poitier decades ago, James Baldwin declared, “I didn’t think Blackboard Jungle was much of a movie—I know much more than that about the public-school system of New York—but I thought that Sidney was beautiful, vivid, and truthful in it. He somehow escaped the film’s framework, so much so that until today, his is the only performance I remember. Nor was I overwhelmed by Cry, the Beloved Country, but Sidney’s portrait, brief as it was, of the young priest was a moving miracle of indignation” (the essay was named “Sidney Poitier” in Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption, from publisher Pantheon, in New York, 2010; page 182). James Baldwin, writing about what audience and fellow artists seek in a film and theater actor, went on to discuss the precarious position of all artists in America—the isolation of artists and the lack of seriousness with which culture is received usually—and the rare moments, often of anguish and awareness and embattled intentions, that black artists such as Poitier invest their roles with: for instance, for Poitier, the moment of a man responding to his wife’s counseled restraint—rooted in both love and fear—in The Defiant Ones. Baldwin made scathing comment on the absurdity of the shallow liberalism and interracial romance in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which Poitier performed with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (“The next time, the kissing will have to start,” Baldwin said; page 185). Baldwin did not fail to note how the slowness of social change and the fact of Poitier’s success made Poitier a target for some frustrated, misguided young blacks, who seemed to expect everyone to suffer or succeed in the same way and time. Finally, James Baldwin concluded, “The presence of Sidney, the precedent set, is of tremendous importance for people coming afterward” (185-186). Denzel Washington has been at least as admirable as Poitier in his own films, possibly more so, but Washington has played also a corrupt policeman in Training Day (1996) and a drug-addict airline pilot in Flight (2012). Washington’s co-star in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Don Cheadle, played a trigger-happy best friend in that film, but Cheadle was heroic in Hotel Rwanda (2004), doing something that was both good and dangerously difficult, saving people from genocide. Laurence Fishburne has been hero and villain, and played a conflicted figure in Deep Cover (1992).

Daniel Shaw, writing about “race, class and gender in the philosophy of film,” wrote about Laurence Fishburne’s work in the African-American director Bill Duke’s film Deep Cover: Fishburne’s character is a policeman who is recruited for a federal investigation and surveillance project intended to identify drug trade criminals. Pretending to be a criminal, the policeman, to fulfill his job, must participate in crime, taking drugs and using violence. He sacrifices his moral sense to do his work but finds himself abandoned. Is he a moral man or not? The film allows speculation about the man’s fundamental nature, and the quality and meaning of his choices, and that gives it a philosophical dimension. Is the African-American policeman simply one more wayward black man—a drug dealer and murderer—showing his true colors? “The film encourages the viewer to move beyond these stereotypes, by depicting its protagonist as primarily human, not black, and dealing with concerns and facing struggles that are universal” (Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously, Wallflower, London and NY, 2008; 88). In the film Deep Cover, Laurence Fishburne plays someone who walks on a high-wire over the abyss, is touched by what is there, and finds a path to survival and safety; an unusual occurrence in life or film.

In the film The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, directed by the Italian male director Gabriele Muccino, the understanding mastery of a Rubik’s cube and the recurrence of running are symbols of the main character Chris Gardner’s efficient intelligence and determination. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) is a film focused on a medical technology salesman whose wife is frustrated by their economic difficulties and leaves him as he begins to investigate the desirable but unlikely possibility of becoming a stockbroker. The anger, pain, and even contempt that observers—mostly strangers but sometimes friends and family too—feel sometimes for a struggling black man is clear, though race is not explicitly invoked in the film’s conversations. Thandie Newton is good as the hard-working, beleaguered wife, a woman whose despair and disgust grows with every day of drudgery. (The disbelief Chris Gardner faces is not unlike that of Walter Younger, played by Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun.) There is little as cold and as sad as knowing that you are not loved by those from whom you expect approval, respect, and love. The determination that Will Smith’s Chris Gardner has is rooted in hope, practicality, and love for his young son. Being a salesman gives him the ability, the comfort and confidence, to meet people and make his case for why he deserves a chance at becoming a broker, at representing high-income clients. Gardner runs to catch taxis and trains and thieves who have stolen his medical equipment; and he runs after chances. He suffers homelessness with his son, and yet must look respectable for a new job, but is rewarded for his faith and efforts. Will Smith’s performance is painfully true and moving; and it is an accomplishment for the actor, comedian, and rapper, whose other films include Ali, Enemy of the State, Hitch, and Seven Pounds, as well as science fiction works like Men in Black, Independence Day, and I Am Legend.

Will Smith was quite good impersonating Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s absorbing 2001 film, a work that appropriately conveyed Ali’s cultural import, something cinema biographies too often fail to do (focusing instead on the personal), and the fight scenes are surprisingly compelling to someone who is not a fight fan, but Smith’s work in Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness has as assertive an intelligence but deeper feeling. It is impossible, seeing Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, a story rooted in fact, for me not to think of Halle Berry’s performance as a woman in grief in Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), a film in which another African-American actor is presented and directed by a European director, Susanne Bier, a performance that is more complex, honest, and whole than usual for a black character; as, contrarily, black characters in film are often criminal, derelict, dumb, or poor at worst, with poverty as a sign of moral weakness; or they are entertaining and supportive minor characters at their most benign. As with The Pursuit of Happyness, there is no posing, and no winking at the audience, in Things We Lost in the Fire. It is an opportunity for art and the revelation of the human.

African-American actors often depend on the stories and investments of others for their endeavors, but can be seen in limiting ways by their fellow Americans: and yet artists such as Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie, and Columbus Short have given interpretations of emotion and insight and made films that are impressive. Of course, the night when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington received the Hollywood film industry’s most cherished recognition as the Best Actress and Best Actor, each getting an Oscar, Sidney Poitier was celebrated as well—and from the podium Denzel remarked that he was still following Sidney.

Will Smith received Best Actor nominations for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. I recall that when I saw, with a woman friend, one of Will Smith’s early films, Six Degrees of Separation (1993), we approved of Smith’s performance, we were excited by it, but were struck by the fact that his character turned out to be much less than first met the eye: he appeared to be an elegant, intelligent young man but turned out to be a fake, someone who had taken a few social clues given him by an infatuated friend and used that to manipulate a wealthy Manhattan couple. His seductive character had charmed us as well as those he met in the scenario. We were disappointed that the young man, who claimed to be the son of Sidney Poitier, was not the longed-for intellectual that we hoped to see, someone dedicated to the arts, philosophy, physics, and political science: instead, he was a black gay hustler, decadent and fantasizing, dangerously deceptive, someone who played on the ignorance and liberal confidence of the Manhattan couple for a place to stay. How often does one see a genuine African-American intellectual in film?

In a world in which ignorance and rough manners are seen as signs of authenticity, rather than a lack of education and cultural opportunity, the charisma and intelligence and passion of certain figures—such as artists and intellectuals but also diverse eccentrics—are symbols not merely of social contradiction or pretension but of genuine history and social possibility. Yet, there have been cinema characters, personable and professional, worthy of respect and affection in the motion pictures of Will Smith as well as Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Halle Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie and Columbus Short, all of whom can be seen as the artistic children of Sidney Poitier, whose films Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, In the Heat of the Night, For Love of Ivy, and A Warm December gave us portraits of dignity, intelligence, and passion of which there were few examples to compare at the time they were made.

There are always people, other actors, who could have had a more significant film career, but did not for one reason or another: one of them is Howard Rollins, who starred in A Soldier’s Story and Ragtime. He, too, was thought of as a descendant of Poitier, but made few films, and much of Howard Rollins’s time, during his troubled life and before his early death, was spent playing an amused, sometimes exasperated detective with Carroll O’Connor on television in a series based on Poitier’s film In the Heat of the Night. Another performer who might have done more was Whitney Houston: I thought Whitney Houston had a great voice, though I did not enjoy always the material she chose to interpret—or even the comments she made in public, comments that could be ignorant or insulting. Yet, I liked her dynamic performance in the musical film The Bodyguard very much, and, whatever the flaws or my reservations regarding her other movies, I enjoyed her in Waiting to Exhale and ??The Preacher’s Wife??—and for a long time I hoped that she would continue to pulverize cultural barriers. I was mystified by her self-destruction. I am saddened by it—even though I was not a great admirer of hers, I have felt the loss. I wonder if the symbolic importance such performers have for us is partly a sign of our own lack of mobility and power: we want them to do in their own work, careers, and lives what we find difficult if not impossible to do in our own social world.

The artistic promises that have not been fulfilled must make us appreciate more the past and ongoing contributions of actors such as Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Don Cheadle, Halle Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie, and Columbus Short. In Darnell Martin’s film Cadillac Records, there are many talents on display; and though Darnell Martin, the director of the theatrical film I Like It Like That and the television movie Their Eyes Were Watching God, is gifted and sensitive, the musical film is a disappointment. The performances in Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records (2008) are strong, and the musical history the film presents is significant—that of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry, pioneering or pivotal figures in American folk and popular music—but the story, revolving around the record company that produced their work, makes for a surprisingly slight film. It is a film with little depth despite the passion of its performances. The characters are presented in terms of deprivation, pain, talent, lust, and addictions, rather than consciousness. It is hard to know if they—who have given transcendence to others—had much transcendence, if any, in their own lives. No personality really surprised, even when one knew little of the specifics of the lives on display. While Jeffrey Wright, who is probably a great actor, may be too recessive—almost stiff—as Muddy Waters, Beyonce may be too glowing, too vivid, as Etta James, someone who gave too much of herself to alcohol and drugs. The usually healthy and happy Columbus Short as the impulsive, wounded Little Walter is transformed, emotionally, physically. Mos Def captures an impish quality in Chuck Berry, rather than his steely drive. Eamon Walker is an impressive Howlin Wolf—big, commanding, smart, sexual. But despite the largeness of that talented personality, and the implication of others, this is a small movie and feels like it: a significant humanity has been left out. If there had been more exploration of both personal intelligence and the broader social world, the film might have been more complete and satisfying: for instance, when Muddy Waters first becomes involved with a woman who has two boys, she says Waters is not the fatherly type—but man and woman do live together, and we do not see what kind of father he is, and whether his presence has a positive or negative effect on the boys. That is a lack of detail and depth. The film viewer is reminded of how much more Sidney Poitier was able to achieve in a more difficult time, with collaborators who treated his talent well and expected the highest standards, the deepest humanity.

In the films Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, A Raisin in the Sun, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field?, ??In the Heat of the Night, For Love of Ivy, and A Warm December, Sidney Poitier was a hero and idol of an engaging vibrancy. A Warm December is not one of Sidney Poitier’s better known or best loved films, and yet it is genuinely remarkable and valuable for all it tries to do. Its script is solid, full of detail and logic that is thorough, though sometimes a little hollow and rhetorical for its neat elimination of the nagging complexities and compromises that attend most lives. Why is the doctor not more ambitious and selfish? Why is his daughter always well-behaved? Of course, the worst of human behavior is neither the only conduct nor truth of character, but it is obvious that care has been taken to present the doctor and his daughter as wholly conscientious, admirable, and likable. I do like the film and its characters: its people are intelligent and good, the screenplay and its presenters imagining blacks with decency and dignity, able to lead full and satisfying lives.
Part of the strategy of the film was likely inspired by Sidney Poitier’s position as a popular figure, someone attractive to different audiences—people with different expectations and needs. Part of its strategy may have been recognition of how narrow and negative the imagery of blacks has been: a lack of beauty, grace, intelligence, culture, and historical knowledge. The film takes all of that and produces a story that puts forth an attractive and noble African-American man in love with a dazzling African woman, their qualities an embodiment of nobility and a refutation of prejudices.

That is the tradition that Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Don Cheadle, Halle Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie and Columbus Short are continuing: Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom, Glory, Philadelphia, The Hurricane, and the quite good works he directed—Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters (Washington plays an intellectual, a poet, professor, and activist, in The Great Debaters); and, Whoopi Goldberg in her solo stage performances as Moms Mabley and assorted characters, including a little black girl pining for blonde hair and a highly literate junkie, and in films such as The Color Purple, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Clara’s Heart, The Long Walk Home, Soapdish, Sister Act, and For Colored Girls, a really unique talent; Laurence Fishburne in Boyz ’N the Hood, Deep Cover, Othello, Bad Company, Akeelah and the Bee, and Bobby (and in Bad Company, Fishburne’s shrewd agent does a black gay agent, played by Michael Beach, the honor of treating him as equally formidable); Angela Bassett in Malcolm X, Strange Days, Contact, Boesman and Lena, Music of the Heart, and Jumping the Broom; Will Smith in Ali and The Legend of Bagger Vance; Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress and Hotel Rwanda; Halle Berry in Losing Isaiah and Monster’s Ball; Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball, Something New, and Contagion; Nia Long in Love Jones and Alfie; Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow, Fighting, and Red Tails; Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker and Night Catches Us; and Columbus Short in Armored and Death at a Funeral. There can be little doubt now that African-American filmmakers—as actors but sometimes as producers and even directors—are creating a film canon that will survive posterity. Have you seen Antwone Fisher, Bad Company, Beloved, Boesman and Lena, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Claudine, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Edge of the City, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, Glory, The Great Debaters, The Hurricane, Inside Man, Jumping the Broom, Lady Sings the Blues, Losing Ground, Love & Basketball, Othello, Sankofa, The Secret Life of Bees and Sidewalk Stories? If so, what did you think of them? Which five to ten films would you expect to find in an African-American film canon?

Canons consist of the best of the past and can be guides for the future; and thus, for pleasure and instruction, the films of Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese and other distinguished directors are returned to again and again. I think it is fascinating to compare Charles Lane’s black-and-white film Sidewalk Stories to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, another black-and-white film from the 1980s set in a city and having comedic elements, but also with Charlie Chaplin’s work—for their shared silence and use of pathos, for a poignantly earthy comedy, a comedy of personal impulse and social class. The more recent Jumping the Broom, focused on the marriage of a young African-American couple, a lady from a wealthy family and a man from a working class family,¬ can be compared to other romantic comedies, both African-American and mainstream, but also with French farce. Such comparisons can contribute to greater aesthetic comprehension and sophistication. However some people may panic at that kind of attention, out of discomfort with intellectual rigor, or hostility and insecurity as their own concerns may be neglected. (In the 2011 book Affirmative Reaction from Duke University, Hamilton Carroll discusses film and how some white men, faced with critiques of privilege, are adopting or exploring minority positions—such as that of the laboring class or sexual orientation—to maintain respect as participating subjects.)

It is easier to doubt than to affirm. It is wonderful that now we can talk of an African-American film canon: canons are collections of works of great quality, both exceptional and representative. I recall that I had the highest expectations for Darnell Martin when I saw her film I Like It Like That in the mid-1990s, but then I lost track of her. It was easy to think that she had disappeared into obscurity, like many artists of color. I was pleased, years later, to see Halle Berry, starring with Michael Ealy, in Darnell Martin’s interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s lyrical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (2004), presented by Harpo Pictures, Oprah Winfrey’s production company. Halle Berry is a woman of great loveliness, and a fine actress: and with eyes that are alert, intelligent, sensuous, tender, and wary, set within delicate but sharp bones and flawless skin, she is able to portray minute but significant shifts in emotion and perceptions; and she is a pleasure and a wonder to see in the teleplay of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a work of romance and social observation. In the novel and film, a beautiful, sensuous girl, Janie, is married off to an older, propertied man by her fearful grandmother, a marriage of security in which the girl is used as a caretaker and field worker, before she runs off to an all-black town with an ambitious, well-dressed traveling man who promises to treat her well; and then and there the ambitious man helps to build the town and becomes the town’s mayor, with the young woman as his adored wife, a woman on a pedestal, yet a woman neglected, until they argue and he dies, leaving her with money and property and freedom—and an attractive, rough, but loving younger man, Virgil, often called Tea Cake, walks into her supplies store and the two fall in love. Janie and Tea Cake’s love is one of adventure, sensuality, and pragmatism. In the carefully made film, the exquisitely lush film, Halle Berry as Janie and Michael Ealy as Tea Cake are gorgeous together, a genuine erotic match. They are immensely gratifying to watch.

There are other African-American stories, stories of fact, and stories of fiction, that could become cinema. Much of African-American history has been infused with pain, pleasure, protest, and promise. Sometimes the facts of that history have been discussed honestly, rigorously, as during Reconstruction in the nineteenth century and during the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, but other times there have been evasion and prejudice preventing that. (It is amazing how few films have been devoted to the civil rights movement, which was heroic action informed by high ideals. Yet, the problem of black politics is not the work of artists but rather the fault of politicians and activists whose theories and strategies have not kept up with the complexities of the times.) Is there enough freedom and interest now in society and industry to delve further, to do more in art? What contributions can African-American visual artists such as painters and sculptors make, or choreographers, and classical music, jazz, and experimental composers? Where are the films based on the works of Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, John A. Williams, Toni Cade Bambara, John Edgar Wideman, and, among others, Percival Everett and Martha Southgate? I would love to see James Baldwin’s Another Country and John A. Williams’s Clifford’s Blues and Toni Morrison’s Sula as motion pictures. Those stories and more are things to hope for. It is easy to confuse wishes with will, and will with wisdom, but what accomplishes anything are discipline, focus, energy, and knowledge—and money and time. Meanwhile, we have the work of Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Will Smith, Don Cheadle, Halle Berry, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie and Columbus Short, as well as that of their forefather Sidney Poitier, to see. The inner life is the most neglected, most significant, most mysterious thing in the world, and Sidney Poitier gave us portraits of an enlightened spirit, of human freedom.

(Essay submitted November 2012)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 16, Issue 9-10 / October 2012 Essays   acting