Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sidney Poitier receives Medal of Freedom

Sidney Poitier and his Oscar in 1963, photo from Aliya S. King.

One of the most awesome men in the entire world, one of the regular cast of Daisy's feverish young adolescent dreams, has just received the MEDAL OF FREEDOM!!!! I am so thrilled!

Sir Sidney!!!

Yes, lots of other people got medals today, but I admittedly fixate on Sir Sidney:

At his first Medal of Freedom conferral, President Obama ran a tight ship of a ceremony, which began slightly after 3 p.m. and clocked in at about 40 minutes' worth of speechifying and medal-bestowing in the glittering East Room, the largest room in the White House. This year, actor Sidney Poitier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Broadway star Chita Rivera, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Irish president Mary Robinson were among the 16 who received the nation's highest civilian honor.

Although the president spoke to the recipients and their enthused crowd of guests for about 20 minutes before breaking out the medals, his comments betrayed very little about his personal feelings toward (or relationships with) any of the honorees he'd selected. The silence signaled humility, and, of course, diplomacy: Robinson, for example, was the object of enmity outside the building, as supporters of Israel had deemed her undeserving after a particular rough career moment when a human-rights conference she helmed in 2001 was dominated by attacks on Jews and Israel.

In the afternoon ceremony, Obama praised Robinson as "a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland," saying she "shone a light on human suffering" during her work on human rights and hunger. A military aide read her citation, which praised her for "urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice."

The president did get personal on a few occasions, his own subtly conveyed intimacy never upstaging, say, the exuberance of tennis star Billie Jean King, who entered the East Room with a victorious pump of her fist and a mouthed "Yessssss!" In the president's estimation, King gave "everyone, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, including my two daughters, a chance to compete both on the court and in life." Upon receiving her medal, she gave it a kiss and flashed the audience a grin.

The president's introductory remarks (smoothly delivered, apparently without written notes) continued in this manner, bowing more to the medal recipients' achievements than to his own experiences with them. After pronouncements were pronounced, Obama clasped medals around 16 necks, engaging in a great deal of hugging, cheek-kissing, whispering and back-patting -- a prolonged bout of physical affection that the recipients happily returned.
Without written notes, she emphasized. (Isn't it so nice to have a literate president?)

Certainly, Sir Sidney deserves it, and more, and everything else, too. Tomorrow, Turner Classic Movies will feature A WHOLE DAY OF SIR SIDNEY! And it's my day off, too! (Can we STAND IT?!) The day begins with The Long Ships (1964) at 6am and ends with Brother John (1971) at 4am the next day--with some utterly fabulous movies in between.

If you have a few minutes, flip over during the day, and watch the master.

You knew I would use this as an excuse to play this dopey song, dincha?

To Sir With Love (1967) will be on TCM at 6pm, right after Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (also 1967) at 4pm. (You can never watch them enough!)


John Powers said...

Just seeing the link to the video chokes me up a little.

Malcolm Gladwell has a pice in the New Yorker, The Courthouse Ring about the limitations of Southern liberalism. He makes a good point, but there isn't the context of how so many Southerners have traveled so far beyond.

As a kid in 5th or 6th grade at Christ Church School they showed us "A Raisin in the Sun." That movie profoundly moved me and I think showing it was a way of expressing how we had to move beyond paternalistic liberalism--this was 1966 or 67.

The movie too introduced me to Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" which is a sort of touchstone for me.

When "To Sir with Love" came out it was important for my mother that her children see the movie. She was teaching at John Street school. A nice Republican woman she;-) I think it's hard from today's perspective to understand the power Poitier's roles had.

DaisyDeadhead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DaisyDeadhead said...

Interesting article, John! I love the passage about the Cunninghams (on pg 2). I dunno if you read what I wrote about Mayella Ewell-- actually about Colin Wilcox--which starts off reviewing Wilcox's wonderful acting, segues into some musings about the character of Mayella...

I'm thinking of revisiting the subject of Mayella, who represents a distinct southern demographic that the Democrats have yet to win.

"I swear Scout, you act more like a girl all the time!"

John Powers said...

I don't qualify as Southern. Sometimes with black interlocotors online I really grate. And the observation is that even white Southerners get what I'm missing. That's not clear at all, because obviously you know there's so much I don't get anyway. But I think you might see what I'm pointing to about a common understanding between people who identify as Southerners whether black or white. There's a journey that is under-recognized that's important to be shared. And I think you are especially gifted in sharing.