In light of the new “Star Trek” movie, President Obama has been tagged as our “first Vulcan president” because he comes across as a logical, cool, “no drama” person of mixed heritage. This is an interesting and fun approach, but I think that the president is really Sidney Poitier.
Although many young adults may know Poitier from when he shows up on the highlight reels at the Academy Awards, those of my era know him as the first African-American movie star, the Denzel Washington of his day. When I think of our president, I think of Poitier. I am not thinking about the handsome young hero of “A Patch of Blue,” “Lilies of the Field” or “The Defiant Ones,” but the more mature protagonist of “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
As you may remember, in “To Sir, with Love” he played Mark Thackeray, a teacher from Guyana, who comes to teach a disruptive class in an inner city London school. In “In the Heat of the Night,” he was Virgil Tibbs, a detective from Philadelphia who helps a racist sheriff solve a murder case in rural Mississippi. He plays a physician who is the suitor of a white woman in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” dealing with interracial marriage in an era when it was still illegal in several states.
There are certain common characteristics of these characters in the three films:
- They are smart and they know it. They had achieved things that most black men in their era had not, and they would not be intimidated.
- Although there was a suppressed anger in these men, they used it constructively to move them forward in their chosen tasks. Tibbs got angry, but it did not keep him from doing his job. It came across as power.
- There was a moral center and an innate goodness in all three characters. The teacher in “To Sir, with Love” had come from a difficult background that helped him to identify with the rebellious, and often discarded, students in his class.
- All three carried themselves with authority—teacher, detective, physician. They were accomplished in their own way.
I think we get all of this in Barack Obama. He is not only well educated, but he knows what to do with his intellect. He can be forceful when necessary, but he is unfailingly respectful of others and of the office in which he serves. Obama has a moral center, and he will be called upon to continually revisit it in the days ahead. Finally, he has a sense of authority about him. Sometimes he seems to take on the persona of the “I know what’s best for you” classroom teacher who won’t take any stuff off of an unruly student. (Joe Biden, perhaps?) This can be a little hard to handle, but we may need a little discipline right now.
Poitier came along at a time when he was anointed as “the one” who exemplified the African-American male we could respect, follow and love. He accepted the role, succeeded in his field and has lived a decent and exemplary life. Although I may not always agree with the way he governs, I would wish the same for our president.
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.