28 OCTOBER 2000, Page 52

Mister Nice Guy

Hugh Massingberd

THE MEASURE OF A MAN by Sidney Poitier Simon & Schuster, £16.99, pp. 256 Sidney Poitier's handsome face, gentle strength and transparent decency in such films as The Defiant Ones, A Patch of Blue, Lilies of the Field and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner undoubtedly did an enormous amount to break down racial prejudice in the late 1950s and 1960s. Yet, inevitably, in the smart circles of radical chic Poitier was dismissed as an 'Uncle Tom' playing the `Noble Negro' who fulfils white liberal fan- tasies. A sneering article in the New York Times (where else?) appeared under the headline: 'Why Do White Folks Love Sid- ney Poitier So?'

With dignity, intelligence and sympathy — though without, it must be said, many rays of humour — Poitier shows the unfair- ness of such glib judgments in this thought- ful and stimulating memoir. He points out that it is easy to forget just how revolution- ary films such as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were in the context of their times. Even for his impeccably liberal co-stars, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, the decision to make the film then represented a significant step forward. Poitier nicely describes their anxiety: 'I doubt that either of them had ever had all that much social contact with people of colour.'

However, if you are hoping for Holly- wood gossip and juicy anecdotes about, for instance, what Lulu said to Judy Geeson on the set of To Sir, With Love this is not your kind of book. Nonetheless Poitier gives us some fascinating insights into the making of In the Heat of the Night with Rod Steiger, who spoke 'in character' off the set. hi the original script Mr Tibbs merely walks away after being whacked in the face by the Deep South tycoon, but Poitier insisted upon his character whacking the bigot right back. So much for 'Uncle Tom'. For Poitier's background was far from the polite middle class into which his critics had pigeonholed him. He had experienced a rough, tough adolescence on the streets of Miami (where he was threatened with murder from an unmarked police car) and Harlem, yet he strove to channel his under- standable anger to the positive — 'and the highest positive is forgiveness'. He attributes his sense of survival to the simple values he had learned as a boy from his parents, poor tomato farmers on Cat Island in the Bahamas. A sickly, premature baby, the young Poitier (probably of Haitian ancestry) went on to enjoy an idyl- lic outdoor childhood, well grounded in the non-material things that really matter, before running smack, as he puts it, 'into Urban' — Nassau and the first confronta- tions with 'racism'.

He was jailed briefly for stealing corn, and then packed off to an elder brother in Florida. Driven by poverty into the army, he faked psychiatric trouble to escape and found himself washing dishes in New York. Eventually he landed a job as a janitor at the American Negro Theatre, where he understudied Harry Belafonte — and then came Broadway and Hollywood. But he refused to compromise his principles, and would often turn facile parts down, thereby condemning himself to more time at the sink. He had vowed that the work he did would never bring dishonour to his father's name, and felt as if he were representing millions of people with every move, or movie, he made.

This must have been a heavy burden to bear and sometimes the worthiness of it all becomes slightly oppressive. The author also over-indulges the rhetorical device of ending a sentence with 'you know?' And when we are dragged off into metaphysics (even Gaia is invoked in the chapter on `Stargazing), one yearns for more Cat Island and less California in his ponderous philosophising.

The title of the memoir is derived from one of Poitier pere's teachings: that the true measure of a man was how well he provided for his children. Contrasting the purity of his own youth with today, the septuagenarian statesman of the screen observes:

We put our kids to 15 years of quick-cut advertising, passive television watching, and sadistic video games, and we expect to see emerge a new generation of calm, compas- sionate and engaged human beings.