I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks and it’s very rare for me to think that a book is better listened to than read, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. The Measure of a Man is narrated by Sidney Poitier himself, and he has such a beautiful voice, that it really enhanced my experience of the book. It also worked really well as an audiobook because he is so conversational in tone – he peppers his narration with phrases like, “You follow?” or “You see?”
As for the content itself – wow! This is a wonderful autobiography and then some. While Poitier does tell the story of his life, it’s not necessarily a straightforward chronological account of events. At times it comes across more as a philosophical discussion, where he uses his own life as a starting point.
His description of his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas was wonderful. Although his family lived in poverty, he points out that living in poverty on Cat Island was very different to living in poverty in some concrete jungle. As a child, he lived in a place with a beautiful climate, cocoa plum trees, sea grapes and wild bananas.
However, the most interesting – and in many ways upsetting – part of the book was when Poitier described his life in America which started when he moved to Florida aged 15, and then moved on to New York, and eventually started acting. This was a a time of racial segregation, and he realised exactly what it meant to be classed as a second class citizen. As an example – he recalled one event when he was already quite well known in films, and he went to a restaurant for a bite to eat. The black Maitre d’ explained that he could have a table there, but they would have to put a screen around him, for the sensitivity of the white diners. When offered jobs on certain films, he was asked to sign papers disowning those of his black friends who were campaigning for equal rights (he always refused to do so).
Throughout it all, Poitier’s dignity and strong sense of right and wrong shines through. He speaks strongly of his love for his parents, and how they inspire him in his life – whatever work he does, he does for them as well as for himself and his own family. He describes how he has always tried to be the best that he can be, his search for answers, his hopes for not only himself, but the world at large. He’s honest about himself; those parts of himself that he is proud of, and the mistakes which he has made.
This is not a revealing, kiss-and-tell autobiography, and it is all the better for it. Poitier does not delve into the subject of murky or tawdry Hollywood tales, and is respectful of those people who he does mention by name. He does discuss some of his most famous films – which made me immediately want to go out and rewatch them – and reveals his motivation for playing certain roles, and refusing certain others.
Overall, I’d say that this is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read (or listened to). I would strongly recommend it, not only to anyone with an interest in Hollywood or film-making, but also to anyone with an interest in the civil rights movement.