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When Harry Met Sidney… Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier’s Relationship Is Ripe for Hollywood Treatment (Guest Blog)

The two 20th-century icons broke barriers in their fields

The loss of Sidney Poitier greatly reveals a series of relationships and occurrences of the last hundred years. On a global basis, Poitier was an avatar for the progress of Blacks. On a cultural basis, he revolutionized the film industry. On a personal level, one relationship, in particular, is worthy of deep exploration — Poitier’s life-long and not uncomplicated friendship with Harry Belafonte.

Born in poverty, and both of West Indian heritage, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte met in 1946, while doing menial jobs at the American Negro Theatre in Harlem. Sidney dreamed of being on stage and screen, Harry sang a little. Belafonte got his first acting gig at the theater, and the one night he couldn’t do it, his understudy went on — yep, Poitier. A powerful Hollywood figure happened to be in the audience that night. Who would have imagined that within just a few years, one would be among the most popular recording artists in America, and the other on top of the Hollywood box office charts?

But what is most remarkable is their political activism through the decades. Belafonte was the more involved, and often felt he was doing the pushing and prodding. He literally begged Poitier in 1964 to join him on a highly dangerous trip to Greenwood, Mississippi, to lend support to those involved in Freedom Summer activities. The two superstars ended up sharing a decidedly unglamorous accommodation, not to mention fearing the nearby presence of the KKK.

According to Belafonte’s “My Song: A Memoir,” two arguments threatened the lifelong friendship. Belafonte wanted to combine a concert with Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, but Poitier vetoed the idea, and it did not happen. Many years later, Belafonte had interest from a network to produce a movie about Nelson Mandela provided that Poitier agreed to star. Belafonte also had Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda standing by to co-star, but Poitier pulled out of the project. That one hurt.

These are not perfect men. They had affairs, and both divorced black women and married white ones. But they sang, they broke barriers, (Belafonte became the first Black solo artist to sell a million LPs, Poitier was the first Black actor to win an Oscar) they protested, they gave a lot of money when it mattered. All while doing the delicate dance that African Americans have always had to perform, to gain acceptance — and powerful positions — among those of all colors. There is a great story — one that playwright Charles Randolph-Wright and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson are developing for Broadway, based on Poitier’s memoir “The Measure of a Man.”

That’s a good start, but isn’t this a perfect time for a film about two legends whose relationship almost defines the civil rights era?

Michele Willens is a bicoastal journalist. She writes a weekly theater report -- "Stage Right or Not" -- for an NPR affiliate and published the essay collection "From Mouseketeers to Menopause" in December 2021.

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