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Sidney Poitier Left Unifying Messages for Our Divided Times

Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

How jarring, yet poignantly appropriate it seems for Sidney Poitier to die at age 94 on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol.

With his gifted acting, engaging personality and social activism, he was “the Martin Luther King, Jr., of the movies,” as one Vanity Fair writer described him, helping ease the cultural anxieties that accompanied the hard-won gains of the civil rights era.

He was a role model for a lot of young Black Americans like I was at the time. Even when his roles seemed sentimental, as in his pioneering Oscar-winning performance in the 1963 “Lilies of the Field,” he was never buffoonish. He always seemed to have a point with his performances. He refused to let the few things about us that look different get in the way of the many things we should be sharing in common.

For that, I fondly appreciate the power of his 1958 triumph, “The Defiant Ones,” a racial fable that earned him an Oscar nomination as a Black convict who escapes captivity, chained to another fugitive, who happens to be a white racist played by Tony Curtis.

Without giving away too much, their life on the lam turns into a riveting odyssey — from mutual anger, fear and suspicions to a gradual revelation. In the words widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The movie effectively leaves us with a lasting question we would hear asked another way by Rodney King amid the 1992 Los Angeles riot: “Can we all get along?”

 

I seriously pondered that question again during the candlelight vigil at the Capitol on the Jan. 6 anniversary. When lawmakers from both parties similarly assembled in 2001, they broke into an unrehearsed but robust rendition of “God Bless America.”

This time Republicans were not to be seen at the Capitol, except for Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming with her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, for the House’s moment of silence. Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger tweeted that he, too, would have come but had to stay home with his wife to await their firstborn.

No wonder so many scholars and commentators wonder if we’re not slipping and sliding into another civil war.

Even those who don’t go that far find rising, systematic partisan attacks on voting and voting rights by Trump-inspired Republicans to be worrisome. So are the Republican allegations of widespread voter fraud, despite a profound lack of evidence.

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(c) 2022 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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