Sidney Poitier, the deeply beloved trailblazing Academy Award-winning actor, director, political activist, and ambassador, passed away on January 7th. Poitier was one of the most iconic film talents and American cultural influences in the second part of the twentieth century. His remarkable career spanned over seven decades.
Before Poitier graced the silver screen, he began acting on the stage with the American Negro Theatre. Through the American Negro Theatre, he landed the lead role in a Broadway production of Lysistrata. Despite the failure of Lysistrata, he continued to pursue theatre, co-founding the Committee for the Negro in the Arts in 1947.
Making the jump from stage to film, Poitier gained his first major film role in the controversial 1950 racially-charged drama No Way Out. Poitier, as Dr. Luther Brooks, the first black doctor of the hospital, assigned to treat two injured white robbery suspects and racist brothers. This role launched Poitier’s film career, leading to other notable roles in Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, A Raisin in the Sun, and Paris Blues.
1963’s Lilies in the Field starred Poitier as a traveling jack-of-all-trades veteran who helps German nuns in Arizona build a chapel in the desert. This role led Poitier to become the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. As dear friend, fellow actor, and civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte recalled in the Netflix documentary, They’ve Gotta Have Us, “With humor, I observed that achievement and felt sorry for my friend. He had a terrible task of having to maintain some sense of dignity and individuality, yet the system didn’t give him much space in which to wiggle.”
In the 1960s Poitier received criticism for his roles as the over-idealized African American, despite being the only major Black actor to cast in the leading roles of American films. Feeling conflicted about this issue, Poitier wanted diverse roles but felt an obligation for his characters to challenge old stereotypes.
1967 was the year of Poitier, with the release of three monumental films starring Poitier: To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Each film dealt with race relations including generational racism, systemic racism, and interracial love. These films have become three of Poitier’s most notable films, with In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Going behind the camera as a director, in 1972, Poitier directed and co-starred with Belafonteand Ruby Dee in Buck and the Preacher. Taking a notable perspective on the classic western, Buck and the Preacher follows two vastly different men, wagon master Buck (Poitier) and con-artist Preacher (Belafonte) who join forces to stop bounty hunters from kidnapping freed slaves and forcing them back to the South. This film later became a significant film in the Black western genre, following earlier Black westerns such as The Bull Dodger, Harlem on the Prairie, Harlem Rides to the Range, and Two-Gun Man from Harlem.
Throughout his career, Poitier strongly advocated for civil rights. Poitier was an early supporter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose first president was Dr. Martin King Jr. In 1963, Poitier and Belafonte were present, supporting the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. During the Summer of 1964, to show support for the volunteers of the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, Poitier and Belafonte took money to volunteers in Greenwood, Mississippi. As they drove at night to Greenwood, they were stalked and attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, who repeatedly rammed their car, until SNCC members and sympathizers were able to create a caravan around them, protecting them from further KKK violence.
Dr. King would later mention how “[Poitier] has carved for himself an imperishable niche in the annals of our nation’s history.” He would go on to further state, “I consider him a friend. I consider him a great friend of humanity.”
Other notable titles, awards, and honors for Poitier:
1974: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II
1982: The Golden Cecil B. DeMille Award
1992: AFI Life Achievement Award
1994: Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
1995: Kennedy Center Honor
1995 – 2003: Member of the board of directors for The Walt Disney Company
1997 – 2007: Bahamian Ambassador to Japan
1998: South Park episode “Mega-Streisand”, parodied as a hero that helped save the town of South Park
1999: AFI ranked Poitier as 22nd on their list of 25 greatest male actors of American film history
2000: The Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award
2002: An Academy Honorary Award by the Board of Governors of the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
2002-2007: Bahamian Ambassador to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
2009: Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama
2016: The BAFTA Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award
Through his amazing body of work in film and civil rights activism, Poitier has and will continue to impact generations of actors, filmmakers, and audiences. As Denzel Washington shared with Poitier, in his 2002 Oscar acceptance speech for his Best Actor win for Training Day, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, Sir.”