To Sir …
Dear Mr. Poitier,
My name is Jonathan, I am an actor, and there are a few things I’d like to share with you — and whoever else may read these words. When I was 14 years old, a young Black boy in Texas, I found myself in lots of trouble, similar to the children your character dealt with in your 1967 picture To Sir, With Love. I remember one scene in particular: You, Mr. Thackeray, were fed up with your class, and during this particular morning’s ruckus, you had finally had enough. You began to lay down the law and did so with such elegance, precision and clarity. The event of the moment was to instill respect in the classroom, but the cheat sheet was to achieve that respect by first encouraging the members of the classroom to develop their own self-respect. You taught them dignity and guided them toward grace. It was in this moment that you offered a line, a line I would carry with me to this day, 18 years later: “Toughness is a quality of the mind, like bravery, honesty and ambition.” At the moment I saw this picture and received this line, I, myself, was indeed a childish delinquent, performing community service to be absolved of my many misdemeanors. Now, I won’t say that this one line changed my life or altered my path, but it did reach me, a boy who at the time seemed unreachable and unteachable. I had heard words similar, but none delivered from such a messenger — Mr. Thackeray; you, Mr. Sidney Poitier. The messenger made all the difference: a tall, charming, well-dressed, caring and strong Black man, an icon I had not yet seen on my TV set.
As time is short, I’d like to bring a few more events to the stage. In 2008, in my dormitory at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I hung a photo of you. Well, to be honest, on the wall was a taped photocopied black-and-white headshot of you. Somehow I had made it out from the abyss of delinquency to this artistic institution, and in this foreign land, I needed someone close to remind me of the mission, to be tough, to be brave, to have dignity, and to look damn good doing it, as was your modus operandi. You see, by this time I had studied your work and career, your filmography had been violently memorized, and your book A Measure of a Man read multiple times. Mr. Poitier, making my way through my actor training process was difficult; I had a bad speech impediment and was wrestling with my identity as a Black man, a Black Southern man who was now in a training program that was telling me I didn’t sound like a “real” actor.
I can’t tell you how many times I cried in those early years of school looking up at that taped-up printout of you, wondering how to be me and still do this acting thing, to stay on the mission, to remain brave. I thought of you and yet another one of your performances, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, when you said with such righteousness, self-possession and freedom: “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it, the rest of your life you will never understand.” From those words you gave me life and drive. That sentiment activated the rebel in me and pushed me and my artistry to another level. It was my initiation into the artistic vanguard, for which you, sir, were and will forever be the chairman of the board.
This is a letter of thanks and promise. What you have done for me as a Black actor, and for other marginalized artists, is monumental. Your talent, bravery, elegance and toughness have paved the way for many of my heroes and my own generation. I and we thank you. How you managed to withstand all the isolation, all the naysayers, all the haters, we will never know. But please, trust and believe the mission continues, your legacy lives on in us, and the tectonic industry shift and elevation you single-handedly achieved is being felt to this day, your blueprint left in good hands.
Mr. Lindner says to you, as Walter Lee Younger, in the film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, “You just can’t force people to change their heart, son.” Well, you did do that. You forced an entire industry and world to change their hearts, to see past the fear, past the bigotry and box office, and in doing so lifted the stories and the lives of Black America, of the marginalized, and of the unsung, and you did it all with grace, passion, fire, charm and style. For that, we love you. And for all you’ve built and taught us, we thank you. Bravo, Mr. Poitier. Bravo. We’ve got your back!
Read tributes from Anika Poitier, Wolfgang Puck and Cheryl Boone Isaacs here.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.