Back to Poitier, then. A Raisin in the Sun”, “Lilies of the Field” (for which he won this Oscar) and “In the Heat of the Night”.
But in my inexperienced youth, I must admit that I never saw him as a pioneer as I should. The reason: I loved what he was doing, but felt like a Caribbean man.
Poitier was Bahamian (he was born in Miami but spent his early years in the Bahamas) and always sounded it, especially in the most passionate moments. Indeed, in “To Sir, With Love” from 1967, he played a teacher of Guyanese origin working in a struggling multiracial working-class London school. As a kid, it never occurred to me that I had to treat him in his roles as someone who grew up, say, on the South Side of Chicago. In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, I saw him as a young West Indian gentleman coming to dinner.
And while Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s characters in that film wouldn’t have been at all thrilled about a Caribbean man marrying their daughter, it struck me that they would have been even less enthusiastic if the suitor was a black man from somewhere like The South Side of Chicago – a point that would have been emphasized had the role been played by another black actor of the time, like the great lacrosse and football player Jim Brown, who was in dozens of films after his NFL career, or Billy Dee Williams, famous for “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Empire Strikes Back” (although both are a few years younger than Poitier). A “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with Williams, as graceful as he would have played the lead, would almost certainly never have been made in 1967.
Poitier was certainly a pioneer—but in the sense that he was transitory. In a mid-twentieth-century America that feared and despised blackness and especially black masculinity accompanied by a hint of sexuality, the first true black matinee idol was almost inevitably going to be someone who didn’t speak (or move). not) in fashions more generally associated with black American men. A more local, less global black voice would have made (or made) white audiences too uncomfortable at the time for a major studio to greenlight classic Poitiers films. He was, quietly but resolutely, different. It came from somewhere else, even if you only thought of it subconsciously – as we do to a large extent with language in all its facets.
But he was a bridge. He was black, after all, and his Caribbean cadences were certainly not white. He helped pave the way not only for other black actors, but also for the acceptance of a more varied black discourse. By the 1960s, the Black Power movement and the Black Is Beautiful movement—proud displays of blackness in aesthetic mediums, including clothing and hairstyles—became part of the black mainstream and increasingly (if not largely ) accepted by society in general. Language norms shifted along with it, and from then on, Black American English was more acceptable than ever in the public sphere.
Black English resonated in the so-called Blaxploitation genre of the 1970s as well as in network TV shows with black actors like “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son,” starring Foxx. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was an explosion in film noir where noir English was woven throughout the dialogue, from Spike Lee’s early work to “Boyz N The Hood” by John Singleton. Rap began its gradual penetration into mainstream American music, so there are now a number of hip-hop tracks that are almost guaranteed to be played by DJs, even at all-white wedding receptions.