There are few honours an actor can receive that weren’t bestowed upon Sidney Poitier. The first Black man to receive an Academy Award for best actor, he was also the recipient of a knighthood, the Kennedy Center Honors, a Grammy, BAFTAs, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a further Academy Award for lifetime achievement. But his awards pale in comparison to his cultural significance: he forever shifted Black representation on screen, opening doors for countless people that came after him, and changing the perception of what African-American men were and could be.
The son of Bahamian tomato farmers, Poitier was born two months premature while his parents were on a trip to Miami. He spent his childhood on Cat Island in the Bahamas. He left school at 12 and as a teenager he moved to Harlem, lying on his forms to enlist in the US Army aged 17. Overwhelmed by the cruelty he saw at an Army hospital, he quickly escaped by feigning insanity and returned to Harlem. He auditioned for the American Negro Theater, where he was marched out of the door on account of his poor literacy and thick Bahamian accent.
Undeterred, he spent months working on both, practising his reading every night with a waiter at the restaurant where he washed dishes. He got his break filling in for Harry Belafonte at a preview performance, impressing a Broadway producer in the audience, which led to a steady stream of work. Despite his self-proclaimed “tone deafness”, which drastically limited the roles he could take, he won plaudits on the stage, being nominated for a Tony Award for his role of Walter in A Raisin in the Sun. Later he starred in the acclaimed 1961 film adaptation.
In the 1950s he gradually established himself as a captivating screen presence. He was talented but rebellious high-school student Gregory in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, layering in the character’s untapped potential, even when Gregory can’t see it himself. And he devastated audiences as tragic stevedore Tommy in the 1957 film noir Edge of the City. Poitier brought a warm magnetism and poise to both roles. It was a combination that became his signature: an ability to fill the screen with an inviting but regal presence.
He won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale for The Defiant Ones (1958), and also received his first Oscar nomination alongside Tony Curtis as two convicts chained together and on the run. The co-stars had tangible chemistry, but Poitier’s role only scratched the surface of his abilities. He won his Oscar, more fittingly, for Lilies of the Field (1963), playing a handyman building a chapel for a group of nuns. The role of Homer Smith drew on Poitier’s own strength of personality: talented, generous and refusing to let societal expectations of him get in the way.
Poitier was now established as not just ‘a’ Black movie star but ‘the’ Black movie star; something that weighed heavily upon him. “During the period when I was the only person here – no Bill Cosby, no Eddie Murphy, no Denzel Washington – I was carrying the hopes and aspirations of an entire people,” he said in 1989 to the New York Times. “I had no control over content, no creative leverage except to refuse to do a film, which I often did. I had to satisfy the action fans, the romantic fans, the intellectual fans. It was a terrific burden.”
His acting career hit its peak with three films released in 1967. To Sir, with Love sees him playing an immigrant teacher in a rundown east London school, with Poitier drawing on his innate charisma to create an inspiring educator without slipping into sentimentality. In Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, he brings a steely core to his role as a brilliant big-city detective solving a murder in Mississippi. Famously, Poitier insisted on his character slapping back a racist white man, feeling it was important to see Black characters not turning the other cheek. Equally significant was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a romantic drama about an interracial couple, which was released while interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states. A scene in which Poitier’s character refers to his partner’s belief that “every single one of our children will be president of the United States” seemed to nod to a brighter future. Forty-two years later, Barack Obama, the son of a Black man and a white woman, would be hanging the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Poitier’s neck.
As a director, Poitier created opportunities for other Black actors. He cast long-term friends Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee in his 1972 western Buck and the Preacher and reunited Richard Pryor with Gene Wilder for Stir Crazy (1980), the first film by a Black director to gross over $100 million. Poitier may be remembered by the number of ‘firsts’ he achieved as a Black man, but he was always conscious of improving the world for those who came after him. He marched on Washington with Martin Luther King (who called Poitier a “soul brother”) and risked his life to take vital aid to civil rights activists in Mississippi. But his greatest impact was undoubtedly as a cultural figure. Belafonte would reflect on his friend’s legacy: “I don’t think anyone [else] in the world could have been anointed with the responsibility of creating a whole new image of Black people, and especially Black men.”
Sidney Poitier died at his home in Los Angeles aged 94, survived by his wife Joanna Shimkus, five daughters, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
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