“Of all my father’s
teachings, the most enduring was the one about the true measure of a man. That true measure was how well he provided for his children, and it stuck with me as if it were etched in my brain.”
movement. It was Belafonte who convinced Poitier to help deliver $70,000 to Freedom Summer volunteers in 1964. Explaining the magnitude of Poitier’s influence, Belafonte once said, “I don’t think anyone [else] in the world could have been anointed with the responsibility of creating a whole new image of black people, and especially black men.” Poitier was fully aware of the paradoxes and limitations of his celebrity. “During the period when I was the only person here—no Bill Cosby, no Eddie Murphy, no Denzel Washington—I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people,” he said in a 1989 New York Times interview. “I had no control over content, no creative leverage except to refuse to do a film, which I
often did. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden.” And because of this burden, his cinematic contribution should be measured by more than just what the scholar Sharon Willis describes as “the Poitier effect,” meaning Hollywood’s lasting obsession with the kind of racial fantasies and figures that Poitier portrayed in his films. He strategically pushed against the constraints of Black representation in film, juggled disparate audiences’ desires and expectations, changed the face of a Hollywood leading man, and showed Black actors how to exist within and also escape the industry’s limited framework. His impact on American cinema cannot be overstated.
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