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The Poitier Effect: New book by film scholar examines ‘change without change’

April 6, 2015
still of Sidney Poitier in To Sir with LoveSidney Poitier in 1967's To Sir with Love.

Sir Sidney Poitier became a cultural icon in the 1950s as the first black actor to break racial barriers in film. But as University of Rochester professor Sharon Willis argues in her new book The Poitier Effect (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), his image on screen creates a false sense of equality that continues to appear in the popular media and remains damaging to race relations today.

“Poitier’s presence in racially charged films during the 1950s and 1960s made him the go-to figure for white people who want to talk about changes in racial equality,” says Willis. “His image is often used by people who want to assure themselves that they are not racist because they would invite a person like Poitier to dinner. But in reality, his relationships mirror black-white relationships seen as far back as in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which shows blacks as being ‘patient’ with whites.”

In essence, these images create what Willis calls the Poitier Effect, a function of white wishful thinking about race relations. “As Hollywood’s first black leading man, Poitier came to signify to the white status quo a form of racial reconciliation,” says Willis. She points to his roles as a teacher overcoming the prejudice of students in To Sir with Love, and a detective in a racist town in The Heat of the Night. In both films, she believes that his restrained and dignified response to white ignorance and bad behavior contributes to a sense that race no longer matters. But as the author points out, events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, show that this is not the case. “These recent actions show us that racial tensions still exist and that things have not changed to the degree that movies show they have.”

Part of the reasoning behind Willis’s argument is that audiences have been conditioned over time to view films about race through a white narrator’s point of view, as seen in films like The Long Walk Home, Pleasantville, and The Help. She believes that films that show this ‘change without change’ make it harder for films like the recent Martin Luther King Jr. movie Selma, to experience success. “It was as if the mainstream public wasn’t ready to have the story told from the African American point of view,” said Willis, whose hope is that readers of her book can use the Poitier Effect as a framework to apply when watching films. “By being able to take apart the too-satisfying solutions that so often end films about race, audiences will be one step closer to figuring out the true message behind them.”

Willis is a professor of art history and visual cultural studies at Rochester, as well as the former director of the University’s film and media studies program. She is a co-editor of Camera Obscura and author of High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film, and Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body, as well as many essays on film theory and cultural studies.


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Category: Society & Culture