by Sidney Poitier
Harper San Francisco, 256 pp.
Sidney Poitier already published his autobiography 20 years ago. "This Life" (l980) was a reasonably engaging and insightful celebrity memoir. It told all that anybody would want to know about what made the superstar tick. Childhood defined by poverty and strict parents, self-reliance at an early age, hard work, and long-postponed success all made him too tough and proud to sell out. Since l980, Poitier has all but disappeared from the screen (he is 73, and notoriously picky about accepting roles). So what could a new autobiography have to add?
Unlike the first, "The Measure of Man" is billed as a "spiritual" autobiography. Has Poitier seen God? Or has he, a la Shirley MacLaine, communed with spiritual beings more therapeutic and fashionably dressed than God?
No: The "spiritual" tag on the cover refers to such platitudes as: "I have a kind of respect--a worshipful attitude, even--for nature and the natural order and the cosmos and the seasons." "I simply believe that there's a very organic, immeasurable consciousness of which we're a part." "I'll say that I believe in God, if you press me to the wall, but then I'm going to come right back at you and give you the above definition of God. You follow?" "What is physics but a repository of mysteries? And astronomy? My God! You talk about mysteries!"
Such revelations are mostly confined to a single chapter, "Stargazing," which has the hasty, ill-fitting look of something the marketing department foisted onto the original package to justify an advertising formula.
What might have made Poitier's story seem marketable as a "spiritual" product is that he is a quiet, ploddingly successful man, who refused to be discouraged by poverty and repeated failures: He is the kind of black man that parents and preachers hope their churches will produce. ("The Measure of Man" is being released just in time for the graduation-gift sales boomlet.)
Poitier suggests that the community of the rural past provided him with the psychological strength to succeed in a heartless, competitive world. When he grew up in the pre-industrial Bahamas, "poverty wasn't the depressing, soul destroying force that it can be under other conditions," he says. "I was lucky.that I wasn't bombarded with contravening images and influences ..I didn't have to digest television." Envy and unrealistic desires did not compound his family's deprivations. He upholds discipline, responsibility, material deprivation, and corporal punishment as good for children.
These are the kind of "traditional values" that the marketing people apparently associate with religious life. But they are really just pragmatic principles. Sure, preachers often preach hard work, stick-to-it-iveness, and thrift, but so do high school wrestling coaches.
Most of "Measure of Man" is devoted to aimlessly meandering over mundane non-religious ground (mundane in both senses). Poitier describes his movie roles, marriages, house purchases, business ventures, and friendships, backing and filling with childhood memories, which always verge on providing some key to his success or his artistry. And which always disappoint. These add nothing to the story told in "This Life."
Beyond testifying to the publishing industry's cynicism about the short memory of readers, booksellers, and critics, this product's strong odor of niche marketing deserves comment. The three categories that define the book add up to a promising commercial formula: successful black male + celebrity + "spiritual." They go together like three cherries on a slot machine.
Nothing in "Measure of a Man" gets at the inner sources of Poitier's significance in the history of American cinema. He was the star who established the full status of black men as leading men in Hollywood. He was the first black actor to win an Oscar, also the first one to kiss a white woman and slap a white man on screen. No mere sex symbol, he achieved a majestic moral stature that made him a symbol of African-American hopes. To this day, "dignity" seems to go with Poitier's name like a Homeric epithet. He paved the way for James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington, who could concentrate on putting more backbone into images of black men.
Poitier's life is a significant one. It insults him, as well as his fans, to palm this book off as his life story. It would be a challenge to add depth to Poitier's screen personality, an almost wholly secular one, but one bristling with implications, with hidden meanings and complex inner mysteries. The word "spiritual" seems to hint at those meanings and mysteries, but the contents of the book are never as convincing as Poitier was on the screen.