The Oscars and Why We Can’t All Be Sidney Poitier

Illustration for article titled The Oscars and Why We Can’t All Be Sidney Poitier

Writers don’t give prescriptions. They give headaches!

Chinua Achebe

Sidney Poitier is the doctor who saves the life of the racist who wants him dead. Sidney Poitier is the teacher who becomes the Great Black Hope for bratty white students that British society has written off. Sidney Poitier is the dignified handyman who builds a chapel for nuns for free. Sidney Poitier is the heroic Philadelphia police detective who risks his life in 1960s small-town Mississippi to bring a murderer to justice.


Sidney Poitier is not a man so much as he is a superhero, slaying racial stereotypes with every role. With his immaculate diction and regal bearing, he’s Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and every honest, hardworking and earnest black man we know in real life. They go to work, feed their families, and push through the kind of racism that would otherwise render both victim and perpetrator something less than human.

All of that is to say, Sidney Poitier does not down a bucket of greasy fried chicken while running down the streets of Harlem. He does not have HIV or impregnate his daughter twice. If he has a movie daughter, she would never ever balloon to 350 pounds before she gets to high school.

Sidney Poitier, he clearly is deserving of an Oscar. But Gabourey Sidibe? How could Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the story of an obese teenager twice impregnated by her father and abused by her mother, be making history this weekend, wracking up a record six nominations at the Academy Awards?

Ever since the film was released last November, a heated, and sadly, predictable debate has erupted in the black community about the film and what it means for The Race. Folks are suspicious of the film’s generally glowing reception from mostly white critics, the long, extended advance New York Times magazine cover story, the gushing from Barbara Bush, Oprah and Tyler Perry and what it says about what it means to be black today.

The writer Jill Nelson, toiling away, I’m assuming from some far corner of Martha’s Vineyard, nastily supplied a “Top 10 Ways To Know if You are Precious” list:

10) “You order the 10-piece chicken bucket when you’re dining alone.” 5) “You forget that it’s only a balanced meal if you serve greens with that hairy swine and macaroni and cheese. (That cheese better be Velveeta.)” 3) “You think breasts has at least three syllables.”


One Niaonline commenter completed the thought: “I am not precious either, but i am a teacher…and i do see a generation of preciouses who are born to toxic young turbo breeders each day.”


Slate’s Dana Stevens dismissed Precious as “poverty porn,” a too-simple description that has caught on among many black critics. But the lack of empathy for Precious may be more a case of the cultural competencies of certain critics than anything else.


Stevens didn’t “get” the close-ups of sizzling pork or the dream sequences of Precious in which she yearns: “I want to be on the cover of a magazine. I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. But first, I wanna be in one of them BET videos.” Stevens calls these scenes a “disservice” to the character which provides a “pathos-ridden glimpses into Precious' impoverished mental life.”

It takes Teresa Wiltz, writing on The Root, to explain that “this is a film about metaphysical need, DNA-deep, adolescent-sized, existential longing and the power of popular culture to—temporarily—transform unspeakable realities into BET fantasies.”


The irony of both the affliction of white beauty standards and the futility of the BET cure seems to be lost on most critics.

Which brings me to Ishmael Reed’s blackmancentric critique of Precious in his Counterpoint essay. On behalf of me and every other black person, he denounces Precious, which he calls a continuing assault on the black man. Reed compares the film’s makers and white patrons to “the KKK, Nazis, film, television, etc.”


Precious's evil father appeared for oh, about, 15 seconds. So why is it ALL ABOUT black men again?

Reed wants more depictions of “cerebral blacks” like The Great Debaters and Miracle at St. Anna where, and this is significant, Great Black Dignified Men—always men—lead The Race toward dignity and respect.


In other words, he wants to see Sidney Poiter.

Whatever happens at the Academy Awards, this film’s place in history is secure. For the first time in the Academy’s 81-year history, a film by a black director has been nominated for Best Picture category. It also drew nominations in a record five other categories: Actress in a Leading Role (Sidibe), Actress in a Supporting Role (Mo’Nique); Directing (Lee Daniels); Film Editing (Joe Klotz); Best Picture; Producers; Writing (Adapted Screenplay) Geoffrey Fletcher.


I don’t generally spend my money at the movies to be depressed. It is not exactly my idea of fun to travel into the dark, greasy bowels of the interior life of an illiterate girl whose life is an unspeakable hell. I had an overwhelmingly powerful urge to flee in the first 10 minutes of this film. I was revolted at the sight of chicken grease smeared across Precious’ face. Despite the somewhat uplifting ending, the statistics are still against her. My heart ached.

What I saw come to vivid life was the violence done in urban communities like my own, “food deserts” with little to no healthy food choices. Where it’s too dangerous to play outside and get fresh air and exercise. Where you find comfort in food that will slowly kill you. These are the places where Michelle Obama is working to bring healthier food choices, places where a lot of kids wouldn’t know what to do with them. The film gave me a new way to think about the black girl who finds herself in the principal’s office, where a clueless but well-meaning white woman sighs: “You’re pregnant. Again.”


It’s yucky. It’s squirmy. It provokes, angers, inflames. You don’t want to go there. But that’s the role of the artist in society—to force the issue.

Sidney Poitier has carried the burden of defining what it means to be black for a very long time. And even he felt the strain of creating only over-idealized characters. At the time, the image of black people was far from just a concern about vanity or PR. Actual legislation to grant basic human rights for black people was on the table. It was critical to use the few mass media channels available to create an antidote to the minstrel/Amos N’ Andy depictions. As long as we are human and able to see differences, the job of educating white folks about who we really are will never be done. But as we journey to wider visibility and acceptance of our place at the very center of American arts and culture, we have to love ourselves. We have to love ourselves when we are functional and when we are dysfunctional. When we deserve admiration or and when we deserve pity. We have to love our whole selves, dark secrets, chicken grease and all.


Natalie Hopkinson is The Root’s media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.

Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter