Sidney Poitier died today, a fine actor, and probably the first Negro matinee idol–and the first black male to win an Academy Award.
Most of Poitier’s films commented, either directly or indirectly, on racial politics in the United States, and his performances were often judged (and sometimes criticized) in relation to their “race” content. Either they were praised as bold and courageous for their stand, or denounced as “Uncle Tom” vehicles designed primarily to make him palatable to white audiences.
In my opinion, his finest film was “The Bedford Incident” (1965), in which he played a smart aleck journalist aboard a US Navy missile frigate commanded by an Ahab-like gung-ho skipper beautifully portrayed by Richard Widmark. The film is a competently made Cold War thriller, of primary interest to me because the USS Bedford (DLG 113) is the same class ship I was aboard during my time in the military (USS Dewey DLG 14). The plot revolves about a cat-and mouse game between the American frigate and a Soviet submarine caught red-handed conducting espionage in NATO waters.
The film is entertaining, but it also is quite remarkable, considering when it was made. First, it depicts life aboard a destroyer conducting anti-submarine operations quite realistically, and is otherwise quite authentic as to the day to day routine aboard that type of vessel. It is the best dramatic portrayal I have ever seen of a world I was completely immersed in for over a year. (No pun intended.)
But more important, Poitier’s character is an African-American, and Captain Finlander is a blonde, white guy, and these distinctions are never pointed out, or even mentioned, in the struggle between the two men. Poitier is chasing a story, Finlander is chasing a submarine, and the two quests inevitably
get entangled as the film progresses. But the racial distinction between the two men is simply not an issue. A black actor could have played the Captain, and a white one could have played the muckraking journalist. Or they could both have been of the same race. It was never brought up.
It simply didn’t matter, which is exactly as it should be.