Oprah Talks to Sidney Poitier
Oprah: And having a mother who loves you—there's nothing stronger.
Sidney: We should not limit it to two generations. I have to accept that my contribution to the man that I have become was a small one. The gift made to my mother, which manifested in me, could have been lying in dormancy across generations. Because let me tell you, my dear—there is something about you that didn't just happen when your father's sperm hit your mother's egg. The sperm and egg carry a history that includes generations you don't know. Take a person like Stevie Wonder, who was blind from a young age. Where did his gifts come from? His mother? They came through her. And it is conceivable that 5, 10 or 20 generations ago there was someone with an extraordinary gift in Stevie's family, but the external circumstances of that person's life were such that they never gave rise to the gift's blossoming.
Oprah: Because it takes a combination of forces to bring out gifts.
Sidney: Exactly. One day, it happens: A kid like Stevie is walking through a living room, and there is a piano, and he hears a note, and it becomes the light. So the journey is not one generation. Each of us is an accumulated effort unfolding.
Oprah: That's why it's exasperating when people continue to see you only in the context of race.
Sidney: I deal with race-based questions all the time, but I resent them. I will not let the press thrust me into a definition by feeding me only race questions. I've established that my concern with race is substantive. But at the same time, I am not all about race. I have had to [deal with this] all my career. And I've had to find balance. So much was riding on me as one of the first blacks out there.
Oprah: As Quincy Jones says, you created and defined the African-American in film.
Sidney: It's been an enormous responsibility. And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.
Oprah: Did you know you were a hero?
Oprah: Sidney, you were more than just the first. By your choices, you became heroic.
Sidney: And you know what? I—
Oprah: Sidney, just take it! Say, "You know what, Oprah? You're right. Damn, I was a hero—and I still am!"
Sidney: I cannot, and I'll tell you why. If I were to be judged by my father—
Oprah: Who is still the standard-bearer for you?
Sidney: Yes. And that's my whole compass. You see?
Oprah: Because you feel this way, isn't it frustrating when others define you in terms of color?
Sidney: It doesn't aggravate me anymore, but it did. I was fortunate enough to have been raised to a certain point before I got into the race thing. I had other views of what a human is, so I was never able to see racism as the big question. Racism was horrendous, but there were other aspects to life. There are those who allow their lives to be defined only by race. I correct anyone who comes at me only in terms of race. For instance, I have friends who don't know many blacks. And sometimes, a friend will say how well he or she knows a black person.
Oprah: I grew up in an environment where I was often the only black child, and people would ask me if I knew you!
Sidney: You ready for this? I've been told, "You look like Sammy Davis Jr."
Oprah: Could the person who said this see? Or was it Stevie Wonder?
Sidney: That joke brings to the fore the fact that others' knowledge of blacks is far from multidimensional. And our difficulties should teach us to see the big picture. The big picture is that racism has been an awful experience—but there are other experiences. We need to keep an eye on the other human experiences to give ourselves the fullness and the breadth of our own humanity. Our humanity is served back to us through the eyes of those who have diminished us. And they serve back to us a view of ourselves that is incomplete. If we don't look to the bigger picture, our view will narrow to that which is constantly fed to us.
Oprah: You're saying everything that I believe! We define our own lives, and we become what we believe. That's why there were people who were enslaved who could say inside themselves, "This is not who I am. I'm gonna go north, though I'm not sure which way that is."
Sidney: Absolutely. And what troubles me is that so many people don't know how to get ahold of their sense of self, that sense that says, "I am—and I need to strengthen this me."
Oprah: In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it felt as if you wrote that speech your character says to his father, who objects to your character marrying a white woman. Do you remember the speech?
Sidney: Of course.
Oprah: Some people forget their parts.
Sidney: No, no, no. That speech meant so much to me. It was how I felt. My character says to his father, "I love you, Dad. You're my father. But there's this difference: I think of myself as a man, and you think of yourself as a colored man."
Oprah: So back to a question I wanted to get to: How did you feel when your own people labeled you an Uncle Tom and a "millionaire shoeshine boy" in the sixties?
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.
Oprah: Sidney, what do you do for fun?
Sidney: I play a lot of golf. My love of golf far outstrips my gift for it, but I love it. And I read a lot.
Oprah: What do you read?
Sidney: I love James Baldwin—the way he put words together. And Shakespeare for being such a wordsmith. I've read so many books on astronomy. I've also read Aristotle and Plato.
Oprah: And you didn't have any formal education, right?
Oprah: That's why it's so extraordinary that you could hold on to who you are!
Sidney: You know what? It was survival.
Oprah: All the work I do is about helping people realize who they are. The whole quest for each of us is to become more of who we are meant to be. So how does someone get to that?
Sidney: We all have different selves: There is a public self, a private self and a core self. We all know the public self—it's how we put our best foot forward, smiling and behaving. But the private self is a more fundamental self, and that is where we find our frailties, our fears. It's like a clearinghouse where our demons are safe. Then there's the core self, which is our pure instinct. That's where all our goodness and capacity for kindness lives. You can feel it sometimes. When people say, "I feel it in my stomach," that's the core self. Our best comes from there, and we know how courageous and honorable we are. The core self is who we are.
Oprah: How do you learn to trust that core self?
Sidney: I don't know how to do that for other people—I know how to do it for me. And I keep searching for answers.
Oprah: You once said that you have been visited by regrets. Other than playing Porgy, what do you regret?
Sidney: When I was a boy on Cat Island, I used to go hunting with a slingshot. And I would hit birds with my pebbles. Later in life, I learned the value of a life. I wanted to be my own man, but I wasn't allowing the birds I destroyed a life. I had to go back and examine my killing of those birds, frogs and insects.
Oprah: No, you didn't.
Sidney: I surely did, my darling! And you know what? I learned that an insect, a frog, a bird are such miraculous creations, and who am I to destroy them since I cannot create them? Do you know what goes into the design of a little beetle that flies? There I was, killing them at random! And the remorse helped me to never kill again.