By Olivia Pierson
How utterly ironic that when receiving the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement, Oprah Winfrey opened her speech with these race-based words:
“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother's house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: "The winner is Sidney Poitier." Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that.”
I say ironic because after winning his first Oscar, Sidney Poitier went on to star in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, a film in which the crucial moment of its climax has Poitier’s character giving his father a powerful piece of his mind by saying, “You think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.”
The film won seven awards including the Academy Award for Best Writing.
Fifteen years later in 1982 Poitier won the same Cecil B. DeMille award as Oprah just did. He is one of the most awarded actors - black or white - in American film history and deserves to be.
So at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, where Oprah made her speech to an audience cloaked entirely in black to show anti-sexual harassment solidarity with the #MeToo movement - why did Oprah have to once again reference ‘blackness,’ as though it’s still a thing?
Because that’s what Oprah always does. Despite being one of the wealthiest women in America, she still seems to be absolutely obsessed with skin colour being a problem, as if America’s civil rights movement only ever happened to other people.
Back in 2013, in an interview about her then new film The Butler, Oprah appallingly said this:
“As long as there are people who still— there’s a whole generation — I say this, you know, I said this, you know, for apartheid, South Africa, I said this for my own, you know, for my own community in the South — there are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.”
An even greater irony leaps out when referencing the film Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, during the said climatic speech delivered by Poitier’s character to his on-screen father, he shouts:
“You are thirty years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes that the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be! And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand - you’ve got to get off my back!”
This is the silver screen half a century ago depicting a Silent Generation black son berating his G.I Generation black father into seeing that it is his own attitude that remains the problem. Oprah is a Baby Boomer, a generation who are now beginning to fill retirement villages around the Western world. The governing generation against which the oldest cohort of BBs threw themselves in order to win their civil rights victories was the G.I Generation (to which Poitier belonged in real life) - those who were young in the Great Depression and went on to fight and win the Second World War in their early adulthood. The very last of this great generation are the ones whom skin-colour-obsessed Oprah refers to as “just having to die” - which they are doing anyway since the few who are left are in their late 90s.
And people think that this woman is “presidential?”
The zenith of the irony though shows itself during a 2009 interview with Poitier about his career. Poitier says the defining moment in his decision to become an actor was when he answered an ad for "actors wanted," and practically illiterate (he had only received one and a half years of schooling), Poitier was thrown out of the interview by the scruff of his neck and told he couldn't read or speak properly because of his heavy Caribbean accent. The guy who threw him out told him to go and find a job "washing dishes" - which is exactly what he had been doing thus far for a crust.
In the interview, the elderly Poitier admits to being deeply offended because he knew he couldn't read or speak properly and the guy had called him on it, which stung... and how did the guy know that all he could do was wash dishes? In that painful moment Poitier decided it was his own responsibility to be more than just a dishwasher in order to prove the guy's (accurate) perception to be wrong.
The reason Poitier became a truly great actor and immaculately beautiful speaker is that he did not succumb to bitterness like an aggrieved victim, but instead sought to better himself for the very profession that totally made his life and to go on to become such a monumental inspiration to the likes of Oprah decades later. He wanted to show that he might be more - and he did.
Kudos to that great spirit!
If you enjoyed this article, please buy my book "Western Values Defended: A Primer"
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