Book Review: Life Beyond Measure

by terry mathews - news-telegram arts editor

Life Beyond Measure:

Letters to my great-granddaughter

By Sidney Poitier

HarperOne. $25.95. 285 pp.

Watching Sidney Poitier on the big screen is like watching a trained ballet dancer. He's tall, elegant and every move seems perfectly timed to create just the right mood.

Turn off the sound and watch the 1967 classic "In the Heat of the Night." During one particularly tense scene, Poitier's character Virgil Tibbs and his nemesis Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) have a heated argument about whether or not the young black detective from Philadelphia should stay in the small town of Sparta, Miss., to help their small, inexperienced police force solve a brutal murder.

Poitier paces, pivots and poses as Steiger chomps on a wad of chewing gum. Poitier conveys his conflicted emotions, ultimately deciding to rise above local racism to help find a killer. The scene plays out as if choreographed.

Poitier also brings his considerable elegance to the pages of the books he's written. His 2007 autobiography, "The Measure of a Man," hit the New York Times' bestsellers list and was an Oprah Book Club choice.

Poitier wrote "Life Beyond Measure," a series of letters to his great-granddaughter, Sydney Ayele LaBarrie, because he was almost 79 when she was born and was aware he would not be around to watch her grow into a woman.

"I wanted to show Ayele me in my own words, from stories not passed down but told from my lips, stories from my mind and imagination, from my philosophies and experiences - my life, as told to her, intended expressly for her ...," he explains. "I wanted her to be able to lean on certain aspects of history that buoyed me."

Poitier acknowledges covering some of the same subjects in earlier writings.

"If perhaps you have read or heard some of the stories that I've told elsewhere, yet repeat in new renderings ahead, I hope you'll indulge me in my choice to tell a handful of them again," he says.

Poitier's history begins in the small village of Arthur's Town on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He was the ninth and youngest son of tomato farmer Reginald and his shy, retiring wife Evelyn Poitier, whom he adored.

He was born in Miami on Feb. 20, 1927, during a trip his parents made to sell their tomato crop. Even though he was more than two months premature, his mother believed he would live and spent the day after his birth searching Miami ghettos for someone to tell her what to do with her infant.

Evelyn Poitier finally found a soothsayer who told her, "He will survive and he will not be a sickly child. He will grow up and travel to most of the corners of the earth. ... He will be rich and famous."

Growing up on Cat Island provided Poitier with a vast playground, virtually unspoiled by tourist or development. The family home was lit by one single light, strung from the ceiling in the main room. There was no running water, nor was there even a formal outhouse. He had only his shadow for a playmate and didn't see his face in a mirror until he and the family moved to Nassau when he was 10.

At 15, his family sent him to live with a brother in Miami. By the time he reached his 16th birthday, he had drifted through Georgia to New York, where he landed a job as a dishwasher and slept on the top of buildings until he saved enough money to rent a room in Harlem. After teaching himself to read, he began acting. He reached the pinnacle of his profession, winning an Academy Award in 1963 for his role in "Lilies of the Field."

Along with fame, Poitier has collected a world of wisdom during his 82 years . His willingness to share what he's learned along the way with his family and his fans is our portion - beyond any measure - of his good fortune.

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