DVD Nation: Sidney Poitier's success was as astonishing as Obama's

Sidney Poitier  with Lilia Skala in 'Lilies of the Field', 1963.

Columbia Pictures

Sidney Poitier with Lilia Skala in "Lilies of the Field", 1963.

The election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president was an event of historic importance that still amazes.

Did Sidney Poitier — the focus of a new DVD box set from Warner Home Video — help pave the way for this milestone?

After all, in Hollywood, Poitier was celebrated as not just a surprise box-office draw but as — to borrow Joe Biden’s infamous observation about his future boss — “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He was a black man that all but the most unregenerate white bigots could endorse.

Sidney Poitier, left, plays the role of detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger plays the role of Sparta police chief Bill Gillespie from the movie 'In the Heat of the Night.'

AP Photo/Movie Star News

Sidney Poitier, left, plays the role of detective Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger plays the role of Sparta police chief Bill Gillespie from the movie "In the Heat of the Night."

Sidney Poitier  with Lilia Skala in 'Lilies of the Field', 1963.

Columbia Pictures

Sidney Poitier with Lilia Skala in "Lilies of the Field", 1963.

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun."

In 1967, Poitier’s status in commercial American cinema was as unprecedented and almost as astonishing as Obama’s electoral success.

That year, according to Mark Harris’ 2008 book “Pictures at a Revolution,” Poitier was ranked by Box Office magazine as “the fifth-biggest star in Hollywood, ahead of Sean Connery and Steve McQueen,” on the strength of three hit films: “To Sir, with Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The latter two were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and “Heat” won the Oscar.

It was Poitier’s universal appeal, however, that would cause him to fall out of favor with “young black America and critics on the left,” who were attracted to less compromised representations of black nationalism and to the urban grit of “blaxploitation” cinema, according to Harris.

Poitier answered his critics at a press conference to promote the film “For Love of Ivy,” stating: “I represent 10 million people in this country, and millions more in Africa … and I’m not going to do anything they can’t be proud of… Wait till there are six of us (who are movie stars) — then one of us can play villains all the time…”

Poitier turns 82 on Feb. 20, and he’s still being promoted by Hollywood as the exemplar of African-American class and quality. In other words, if it’s February, it must be Black History Month, and if it’s Black History Month, it must be time to repackage Sidney Poitier on DVD.

To this end, Warner Home Video on Jan. 27 released the worthwhile “The Sidney Poitier Collection,” a four-film set that includes a DVD reissue (“A Patch of Blue,” 1965), two movies that are new to disc (“Something of Value” and 1973’s “A Warm December”) and a film never before released to home video (“Edge of the City,” 1957).

For my money, the most interesting of the four films is “Something of Value” (1957), which is sort of like “The Defiant Ones,” without the handcuffs.

Scripted and directed by Richard Brooks (“Blackboard Jungle,” “In Cold Blood”), from a best-selling novel by Robert C. Ruark , “Something of Value” is the type of “issues” epic that Hollywood directors like Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”) still create today.

The film casts Rock Hudson and Poitier as Peter and Kimani, estranged best friends who grew up playing together in Kenya, unaware of the disapproval of their elders (“Can’t he find a white playmate?” one man asks) and the social distinctions that would drive them apart as they aged.

Eventually, the angry Kimani tells the distraught Peter: “You are the bwana, and I am the servant. I carry the gun, and you shoot it.”

Guilty “of being black,” Kimani is recruited by the Mau Mau, panga-wielding rebels who promise to use “terror and death” to drive the white colonialists from Kenya. It’s a surprisingly tough role for Poitier, who becomes at least an accessory to violent, bloody murder.

“The Sidney Poitier Collection” lists for $39.98, but is available for much lower prices at many stores and through most online sellers.

For more on the Poitier collection, visit John Beifuss’ blog at www.thebloodshoteye.com.

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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