Today in history… February 20th, 1927, Sidney Poitier, a man who I’m sure needs absolutely no introduction on this website, was born in Miami, Florida.
Happy 89th birthday (yes, 1 year away from the big 9-0!!) Sir Poitier! And I call him “Sir Poitier” because, in case you’re not aware, he was awarded the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire(KBE) in 1974, which entitles him to the “Sir” that precedes his name; although he rarely includes it.
I’ve seen nearly all of his films, although it’s been months since I last revisited any of them. The last Sidney Poitier film I watched was “Buck and The Preacher,” some time last year. It’s one of my favorite Poitier films, along with “In The Heat of the Night,” “For Love of Ivy,” and “Let’s Do It Again,” the 2nd in the comedy/action trilogy of films he made with Bill Cosby in the 1970s.
I’d say that my preference leans towards his latter films – specifically those he had creative influence over, whether writing or directing, as the above films I listed indicate (“In The Heat of the Night” aside).
“Buck and the Preacher” (1972) was his feature directorial debut (although it wasn’t originally planned that way), and a more than fine job I’d say he did with it. He also starred in the film, as Buck, alongside Harry Belafonte as the nutty preacher. It’s a different Poitier on screen – not the usual conservative, brooding, unconventional hero, or the restrained, near-Christ-like everyman we’d seen in several of his prior films, leading up to “Buck,” which feels much more “real” to me – fuller, thoughtful, aged even. Overall, the (black) characters are more alive and rounded than usual – especially Harry Belafonte as the preacher, who I thought was a revelation here. You can tell that Poitier (and Belafonte, who produced) had some control over the material, much more-so than in previous films they only starred in.
In brief, set during the end of the Civil War, Poitier plays Buck, an ex-Army soldier looking for a new home for former slaves that want to settle out West. The villainous Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) rounds up his gang to try to stop Buck because he wants to keep the slaves working in Louisiana. Buck meets up with the Preacher (Harry Belafonte), a con man, and while they don’t get along at first, they eventually team up against Deshay and his murderous gang of outlaws.
Ruby Dee also stars, and jazz bandleader Benny Carter composed the soundtrack.
It’s certainly no “Sweet Sweetback,” but while it was still a Hollywood studio production (Columbia Pictures about 2 decades before it became a Sony property), “Buck” was one of the first major motion pictures to be directed by a black filmmaker that centered on African Americans fighting back against white oppression. Also, as noted, Harry Belafonte’s production company (Belafonte Enterprises) co-produced. It’s not as potent a pill as it could be, but for a film of its time, backed by an American studio, it *deserves* some credit for what it was able to accomplish. Also keep in mind that is was released in the thick of the Blaxploitation movie era, but is certainly not a Blaxploitation movie.
Shot in both Mexico and Kenya (which doubled for the Kansas outback, believe it or not), it was released in the USA in 1972 to a warm reception, as one of very few films at the time (and still today, quite frankly) in which a leading black character was able to exact revenge (and violently-so) against white supremacy.
The entire film is apparently on YouTube; although it’s not the preferred way I’d recommend you watch it. It’s on DVD, although I’m surprised it’s not yet on Blu-Ray, where it more than deserves to be. It’s also streaming on Amazon (for a fee).
As for Netflix, they actually don’t have a single Sidney Poitier film streaming, which I think is unfortunate. Not one! Then again, their streaming library lacks films by a lot of the greats of yesteryear (rights issues and costs, I imagine).
89-year old Sidney Poitier has earned his place, not just in black cinema history, but cinema history worldwide.
On this, his 89th birthday, what are your favorite works of his and why?
I searched YouTube for any worthy clips of Poitier to share with you folks here, and came across this 2007 Oprah Winfrey special, “Oprah’s Dinner of a Lifetime with Sidney Poitier,” which was exactly as the title states. For what was Poitier’s 80th birthday, Oprah selected 6 lucky viewers of her then talk show for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have dinner with Sidney Poitier and Oprah Winfrey, which took place at Spago in Beverly Hills, CA. It’s a touching, revealing tribute to the man in an unexpected setting, and entertaining as well. Watch it all unfold below, in 4 parts: