Sidney: It was hurtful. You cannot help but be hurt. It was far from the truth, but I understood the times. There was a public display of all the rage that [blacks] had built up over centuries. If you examine the movies, the criticism I received was principally because I was usually the only black in the movies. Personally, I thought that was a step!
Oprah: And wasn't it in 1967 that you were the highest-ranking actor of any color?
Oprah: And so as a step, I think that's pretty major!
Sidney: Yes! But it was the times. Even Dr. King was branded an Uncle Tom because of the rage.
Oprah: So when people called you an Uncle Tom, did you just think, "Now is my time to have people turn on me"?
Sidney: I lived through people turning on me. It was painful for a couple years.... I was the most successful black actor in the history of the country. I was not in control of the kinds of films I would be offered, but I was totally in control of the kinds of films I would do. So I came to the mix with that power—the power to say, "No, I will not do that." I did that from the beginning. Back then, Hollywood was a place in which there had never been a To Sir, With Love, The Defiant Ones, In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Nothing like it. What the name-callers missed was that the films I did were designed not just for blacks but for the mainstream. I was in concert with maybe a half-dozen filmmakers, and they were all white. And they chose to make films that would make a statement to a mainstream audience about the awful nature of racism.
Oprah: And it was your choice to play in these films.
Sidney: My choice. That's how my career started. Every one of those pictures, with the exception of the two I mentioned earlier, came from filmmakers who had to make a comment that racism is wrong. There are people—black, white, blue, green—who find it necessary to make that kind of comment through their lives or professions. And I was a part of that mix. I was privy to the big picture—a lot of people aren't. So I can't put people down because they were frustrated.
Oprah: In the late sixties, there was a scathing New York Times article, headlined "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier?" in which playwright Clifford Mason blasted you for pandering to whites. Did the criticism you received for the roles you played cause you to do any soul-searching?
Sidney: I'll tell you what I did: I went down to the Bahamas, and I went fishing. I thought about things, and I knew that I was at a crossroads in my career.
Sidney: Yes. I decided that I must learn everything I could about the production of motion pictures. In a way, I had always been doing that by watching directors, but I decided I wanted to make films. I entered an agreement with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Barbra Streisand. We started a film production company called First Artists. I did four movies with them. I did Uptown Saturday Night, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action. I did A Warm December as well. I set out to make films that would get people to laugh at themselves without cringing. Then I went on to direct other films, such as Stir Crazy. I've been a principal player in motion pictures for more than 50 years. That's a longevity that makes a statement. And my body of work in those 50 years is a testament to those producers who had the courage to step out during the tough years. It's a testament to my values.
We Hear You!