By Erica Meus-Saunders
I believe that the very first time I met Sidney Poitier on the big screen it was in the movie “To Sir With Love”. It is the movie that stood out most in my memory in connection to him.
I was overjoyed when my publication, Nu Woman magazine was invited to sit in on a very intimate press conference with him. It’s said that first impressions are lasting, and to many degrees I accept this as fact. You can tell so much about a man by the way he presents himself. Sir Sidney entered the room and I was in awe; he showed resilience, there was a peacefulness about him, and yes, humbleness.
Our press conference got underway and I was charmed by his wit and almost hypnotized by the sound of his voice. I had always been a great fan of this man, and here he was in the flesh and I could talk to him in this pressroom.
Sir Sidney has set milestones – being the first black man to win an Oscar after having to learn how to read properly at a late age; making over 58 films; and deciding to become an actor after being told he should stick to being a dishwasher. So I was over eager for an opportunity to ask a question or two.
Many questions were asked, and much was revealed in the answers.
*Sir Sidney talked passionately about fostering the arts and filmmaking in the Bahamas*
“We are in a world in which we see on television the exquisite execution of dancers and actors, singers and painters and many other gifts. We have to, I believe, or we have the responsibility to behave in an artistic way that reflects on the growth of our country, the growth of the Bahamas is essential. For instance, you have in the Bahamas, you have very few filmmakers and you should have more, and if the good government let you have and is willing to listen to it, there ought to be a beginning of creative filmmakers and ultimately then, the Bahamas will not have to send from abroad to Canada or Miami, New York or California to get the imitations of what ever we put out there, to invite people to come to the Bahamas. I believe it costs you a great deal of money to create those things. Our children should be creating those; they should be making those things in this country.
I know that there are a few kids, but we are not encouraging them. We definitely are not, when you send to Canada for people who come down and design your advertisements that go all over the United States and in some cases all over the world. Why then do we not have a small body of well-educated gifted filmmakers? We should have and if they don’t do commercials they can make films out of their own imagination.”
Another question was given to Sir Sidney asking him how he remained true to his vision in a segregated era. He revealed that he had never set out to become an artist or actor but that circumstances had propelled him in that direction.
“I did not start out in life to be an artist. I had no knowledge of art in almost any area. I did not have a good education. I was born in Miami, Florida to Bahamian parents, my mother was pregnant, seven and a half maybe eight months, but she was under the impression that she would be back on Cat Island because they went there to sell their tomatoes. They would be back on Cat Island, Arthur’s Town, quite soon, but her water broke and I was born February 20, 1927. When she was able to travel we went back to Cat Island. I stayed there until I was ten and a half. Then my father’s business fell apart (the government of Florida placed an embargo on tomatoes coming from various countries in the Caribbean area).
I was possibly a victim prepared for the reform school (you all may know what a reform school is in this country and all the unfortunate natures of that kind of an institution). So my father was afraid if I ever went to reform school what would happen would be, when I came out the likelihood would be that I would wind up in prison because too many of them in fact did. Some of them were my friends, so he decided to send me to my eldest brother who lived in Florida.
He sent him $10 and part of it was to articulate the fact that I was born in America and he had $6 dollars left. And he decided to get me off, he took me to a boat, I don’t think it was the Ena-Kay, but it was something similar. He put $3 in my hand and he put me on a boat and he said, ‘Take care of yourself son’. I was 15 and everything I knew in the world came from my mother and my father.
** My mother and my father, for reasons that I do not understand even to this day, were able to give me enough, that I could think my way through, even circumstances that I did not quite understand. I would go inside myself and I would try to remember how my mother treated me, and how my father treated his friends and how they treated together their people. So I left and went to another country, but somehow or another, I had digested some value system, things that are not good to do, things that affected how I perceived my parents. So luckily, I went through my whole life on values that I saw operative in their lives. That’s how it was.”
I finally got a chance to ask Sir Sidney a question, and again it was geared towards filmmakers in the Bahamas because this subject was also close to my heart as I am currently the Executive Producer of my own reality show, Nu Face Model Search.
In speaking of Bahamian filmmakers, editors and videographers, what advice Sir, would you give to the up and coming filmmaker who wants to make a name for him or herself?
Sir Sidney’s response:
Well, they are going to need, excuse the point… They are going to need government help; you have, what is the name of the College? College of the Bahamas? You don’t have at the College of the Bahamas, even two men who are really gifted in the whole art of filmmaking. There are cameras that small (he indicates), and every one of you guys know it, that small that records sound and imagery. If you hire two such people they can teach kids, young people so much about these instruments! And then they may begin to think of how much they need to know in order for them to fly. But, if they don’t have that kind of opportunity, it will never happen for them. It will never happen. They NEED to be encouraged in that way. And trust me, I could not read or write, I could not read well, I could not write.
Sir Sidney talks about improving on his reading skills
I was working… Am I going too long? I was working as a dishwasher because I couldn’t read or write that well and I was satisfied about having to work as a dishwasher to feed myself in New York City. On one such job, I am just outside the city and I was working in this place washing dishes and I’ve been there for a few weeks. My job was to wash the dishes when the restaurant closed. When the restaurant closed the guys who did the waiting, they would leave and I would wash the last dishes, because the guys who waited they would sit and have a kind of last minute dinner and then they would go. I would then wash the dishes and go.
One night I’m sitting in a chair as I am here and this is the door to the kitchen, a man from a nearby table got up because I was reading Journal American newspaper. I wasn’t reading it, I was reading those words that I knew and he walked over to me and he said, “What’s new in the paper?” and I said to him, ‘I can’t tell you what’s new because I don’t read very well.’ He said to me, ‘Would you like it if I sat there and read with you?’ And I said, ‘If you would like.’ He sat down with me and the Journal American newspaper and he started teaching me how to read better.
Okay, long story short (audience laughter), I somehow learned to read better! And because I could read better, I would test myself, and I found that there was a thing called a dictionary and I went exploring in the dictionary. I was feeding my own self-interest. That is how I learnt to read, that is how I got into the theatre, that is how I made 58 movies in my life, I directed, I wrote, wrote! I never did my own editing, but I had control over the things I wanted to do with my life. And that’s what I did.
Many other questions were given to Sir Sidney, this one in particular stood with me in how graciously he answered it.
What did you think of this morning’s ceremony and how do you feel that some Bahamians feel that you might not deserve the honour of being named on the bridge?
Sir Sidney’s response:
Certainly that is the prerogative of those people who carry such thoughts. As I keep reminding some of my friends, we are now 7 billion human creatures on this tiny little planet and we are not always going to have the same point of view. We are going to have difficulties because we are, and please forgive the phrase, we are essentially imperfect creatures. If nature had intended us to be perfect creatures from the jump, we would be in heaven, and that would be pretty boring after a while (laughter) so, ah, what was your question? (laughter from the audience) … Bahamians having negative feelings …
“Oh yeah, I don’t have them. What I have is a ‘something inside me’ and I suspect I got it from my mother. I look at the situation and I try to see the truth of it in relation to me. But, I also have to explore the truth of it in relation to the opposite part of the question, so that I understand the reason the person says oh, I don’t believe in him or I don’t think so. They have the prerogative to do that and I can defend myself, but I will not spend my life defending myself. So I go on my gut.”
Chester: What did you think of this morning’s ceremonies?
Sir Sidney: This morning ceremony, I was overwhelmed by it, truly overwhelmed by it. I was truly overwhelmed to see these children, and you know, that is the essence of our country. To see these children and to listen to them sing and to wave and to reach out and shake my hand; was really terrific. It was really terrific! They are the ones who will put inspiration in their lives because if we open ourselves to them, and reach out to them and nurture them, we will have a country that can ultimately stand face to face, with pretty much any country in the world. But they have to have that education. They have to have that nurturing, they have to have the gumption to reach out and to explore and to learn you know. This room is filled with people who have had very good education. Very good, and that in part is responsible for wonderful things in the world.
The few minutes spent with this man were truly enlightening. I thanked him as he exited. I wish that there could be more humans like Sir Sidney whose entire life’ journey could teach multitudes of lessons. I was in awe of how humbled he remained in spite of all his accomplishments, and hoped that when I had accomplished most of what I’d set out to do, that I too could retain my humility.
I’d like to leave you with the words to the song “To Sir With Love”:
Those schoolgirl days, of telling tales and biting nails are gone,
But in my mind,
I know they will still live on and on,
But how do you thank someone, who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try,
If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters,
That would soar a thousand feet high,
To Sir, with Love
The time has come,
For closing books and long last looks must end,
And as I leave,
I know that I am leaving my best friend,
A friend who taught me right from wrong,
And weak from strong,
That’s a lot to learn,
What, what can I give you in return?
If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start,
But I, would rather you let me give my heart,
To Sir, with Love
Look for the full interview in Nu Woman’s Winter issue.
©Nu Woman Magazine 2012. All rights reserved.