The Poitier Effect

The Poitier Effect: Racial Melodrama and Fantasies of Reconciliation

Sharon Willis
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt130jtv3
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  • Book Info
    The Poitier Effect
    Book Description:

    The civil rights struggle was convulsing the nation, its violence broadcast into every living room. Against this fraught background, Sidney Poitier emerged as an image of dignity, discipline, and moral authority. Here was the picture-perfect black man, helping German nuns build a chapel inThe Lilies of the Fieldand overcoming the prejudices of recalcitrant students inTo Sir with Love, a redneck sheriff inIn the Heat of the Night, and a prospective father-in-law inGuess Who's Coming to Dinner. In his characters' restrained responses to white people's ignorance and bad behavior, Poitier represented racial reconciliation and reciprocal respect-the "Poitier effect" that Sharon Willis traces through cinema and television from the civil rights era to our own.

    The Poitier effect, in Willis's account, is a function of white wishful thinking about race relations. It represents a dream of achieving racial reconciliation and equality without any substantive change to the white world. This notion of change without change conforms smoothly with a fantasy of colorblindness, a culture in which difference makes no difference. Willis demonstrates how Poitier's embodiment of such a fantasy figures in the popular cinema of the civil rights era-and reasserts itself in recent melodramas such asThe Long Walk Home, Pleasantville, Far from Heaven,andThe Help.

    From change without change to change we can believe in, her book reveals how the Poitier effect, complicated by contemporary ideas about feminism, sexuality, and privilege, continues to inform our collective memory as well as our visions of a postracial society.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4297-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Racial Pedagogy and the Magical Negro
    (pp. 1-20)

    As a figure circulating in American popular culture and collective memory, the legendary actor Sidney Poitier has been strikingly significant in his durability. He keeps coming—or returning—to mind, it seems, as a handy trope for imagining conciliatory interracial encounters. His iconic efficacy has been uncannily enduring, and its appeal remains far from exclusive to white Americans. He operates as an organizing presence in a surprising range of discourses about race in the twenty-first century that, among other things, has seen the election of the first African American president of the United States.

    For example, two cultural commentators have...

  5. 1 Passing Through: The Obsessive Sameness of Sidney Poitier
    (pp. 21-66)

    Implicitly tracking the vicissitudes of liberal white racial consciousness in the turbulent period of civil rights activism and violent responses to it, Poitier’s films map a kind of racial unconscious. Undergirded by powerful affective charges and delivering cathartic payoffs, his films register some of the fantasmatic forces pulsing through white discourses about race in the period. As the films proliferate ironies that suggest unconscious effects, marks of repression, Poitier’s own compulsive repetition as an idealized “good object” seems to signal the return of the repressed.

    That “good object” must be markedly—if impossibly—distinguished from the “bad object” against which...

  6. 2 Feminism as Alibi: When White Women Encounter Color
    (pp. 67-118)

    Poitier’s characters seem inevitably enmeshed—usually on the side of women—in melodramatic scenarios, which they also seem to conjure; but those scenarios also shape his figure to their measure. If melodrama seems to be the figure’s natural habitat, this may be because of melodrama’s particular aptitude for managing social conflicts obliquely and assigning meanings to them. It should not surprise that popular cinema may remember the civil rights era melodramatically, highlighting the Poitier effect that catalyzes white enlightenment. Nor, perhaps, should it surprise that this cinematic “memory” retrospectively imagines its white characters as readily susceptible to melodramatic transformations that...

  7. 3 The Lure of Retrospectatorship: Hitting the False Notes in Far from Heaven
    (pp. 119-160)

    In their mass-mediated, “prosthetic” memories of the civil rights period, the films we have been examining screen that history through the prism of an idealized 1960s, which condenses the decade into a post-1968 moment. That idealized 1960s, imagined as already feminist and forgetting or smoothing over the period’s conflicts, violence, and contradictions, rescues the 1950s and early 1960s, dissolving their repressions and curing their pathologies—racial segregation and institutionalized gender inequality. InFar from Heaven(2002), Todd Haynes is doing something different. He remembers the pathologization of homosexuality that also marked the period’s cultural terrain as he opens the horizons...

  8. 4 Black Authenticity and the Ambivalent Icon: Keeping It Real in Talk to Me
    (pp. 161-200)

    Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, Kasi Lemmons’sTalk to Me(2007) seems to offer a rejoinder to the nostalgic representations of the civil rights movement that we have been considering. Sidney Poitier anchors the dense web of popular references through which it remembers a certain black cultural history of the 1960s and 1970s. ButTalk to Meremembers not the Poitier effect so much as its impact within and on the popular cultural lexicon. This film’s fictionalized account of the career of the historical figure Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene, a popular disc jockey on WOL radio in Washington, D.C., deploys...

  9. Conclusion: Chasing Sidney
    (pp. 201-220)

    Poitier seems unable to escape his iconic usefulness—particularly, though not exclusively, to white liberal discourse. By way of epilogue, I want to explore the afterlife of the Poitier effect as it continues across a variety of popular discussions and cinematic projects.¹ In 2008, Poitier returns vigorously to the national media stage—or, at least, the spectral image of his 1960s star persona does. The Poitier effect seems to mark a number of accounts of Barack Obama’s political ascendency, which emphasize his exceptional singularity as the quintessential “civil rights subject” who might instruct us in preparing for a “postracial” moment,...

  10. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 221-222)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 223-244)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 245-256)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 257-257)