The Measure of a Man.
by Sidney Poitier HarperSan Francisco, May 2000, $26.00 ISBN 0-6251607-8
One of the most influential actors of our time, Sidney Poitier has stubbornly remained an enigma, a complex tangle of myth and mystery, since he first burst on the American film scene with No Way Out in 1950. He quickly emerged as the first black actor to become a successful leading man in the overwhelmingly racist environment of Hollywood, becoming a recognized international star in a few short years and eventually a number one box-office star and Oscar winner. Despite a series of polite interviews, Poitier maintained an air of secrecy and confidentiality concerning his private life and views until the publication of his 1980 memoir, This Life.
Although that book goes into much detail about the hows and whys of his life, it shed little light on Poitier, the inner man, choosing to dwell instead on the actor's impoverished childhood on Cat Island, his closely knit family, the tough, early salad days in New York and his subsequent breakthroughs on stage and screen. Both books, the previous and the latest, a so-called "spiritual autobiography," share many of the same material about his stellar life in film, recycling similar anecdotes about his work in the ground-breaking Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun, and other roles in such movies as The Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Some repeating facts, figures, and scenes should be expected so the reader of The Measure or a Man must not be dismissive concerning the new book's collective value.
Hence, the value of Poitier's latest offering comes not in its rehashing of old tales of Hollywood's dream factories but in his numerous revelations about Poitier the father, the activist, the spiritual seeker. It is also his clear-eyed acknowledgment of the history of black actors in his business and deep understanding of the high price they paid to enable him to succeed that makes this book worthwhile. "But I knew when I came on the scene how painful it had to have been for them sometimes," he writes, "Certainly not all the time, but sometimes it had to have been a bitch for them to say some of those words and behave in some of those ways. So I look back on them with respect and appreciation."
In his rather flank chapter, "Why Do White Folks Love Sidney Poitier So?" the actor confronts the Uncle Tom label that dogged him regrettably throughout the `60s and `70s. His comment pulls no punches: "I think it's all too easy for anyone not a participant in the cultural clashes of that era to unfairly dismiss films such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, forgetting just how revolutionary they were in the context of their times."
Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of The Measure of a Man is wasted in repeating familiar platitudes about forgiveness, positive thinking, compassion, aging, and faith. It's the kind of thing one would expect from New Age sages Deepak Chopra or Marianne Williamson. Luckily, those sections do not comprise a lion's share of the text and are easily passed over. Poitier shines, however, when he turns his attention on artistic integrity, the media, political commitment, moral courage, and the role of sacrifice and perseverance in the fiercest moments of the civil rights campaigns of the `60s. Many of these passages alone make the purchase of the book a real necessity for the young who wish to put their lives in an historical and spiritual perspective.
As this exceptional book draws to a close, Poitier is often found in a reflective, philosophical mood, taking on the role of a man not only re-examining a long, accomplished life but looking ahead at the steady approach of his own mortality. Yet he appears to the reader to be someone who has few regrets about how he has spent his time on earth. Absent from shady gossip or vainglorious self-congratulatory posturing, The Measure of a Man truly ranks as a strong candidate for a top spot on the list of the 10 best celebrity memoirs published this year.
Robert Fleming is the author of The African American Writers' Handbook and The Wisdom of the Ancestors.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2000|
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