“We're all imperfect, and life is simply a perpetual, unending struggle against those imperfections.”
— Sidney Poitier
The death of Sidney Poitier has reverberated beyond Hollywood. Poitier's acting career spanned more than 60 decades. Sidney Poitier was a pioneering and an exceptional actor. He had a spirit of sophistication and charm which is rarely seen today.
Perhaps Poitier will be best remembered for being a trailblazer in the fight against racial discrimination and segregation, especially at a time when African Americans were not seen as equals to whites.
Sidney Poitier was born on February 20, 1924 in Miami, Florida, but raised in The Bahamas. He was the son of Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. The family moved from the village of Cat Island to Nassau, The Bahamian capital, when Poitier was 11 years old. Poitier returned to Miami in his teenage years to live with his older brother Cyril. The young Poitier worked menial jobs before his big break came.
The young actor got his first break when he met the casting director of the American Negro Theater. He was an understudy in Days of Our Youth, and took over when the star, Harry Belafonte, who also would become a pioneering black actor, fell ill.
Poitier went on to success on Broadway in Anna Lucasta in 1948 and, two years later, made his film debut in the 1950 feature No Way Out, playing a doctor tormented by the racist brother of a man whose life he could not save.
Poitier worked steadily throughout the 1950s, appearing in the South African tale Cry, the Beloved Country; the classroom drama The Blackboard Jungle; and The Defiant Ones, in which Poitier and Tony Curtis play prison escapees who are chained together. Their struggle helps them look past their differences and learn to respect each other.
In the 1960s Poitier began to make his mark on American popular culture. After appearing in the film version of Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, a role he had developed on the stage, Poitier took the part of an American serviceman in Germany in Lilies of the Field (1963). This role earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, making him the first African American to earn this honour.
Poitier was also the first black actor whose character shared an on-screen interracial kiss in a major movie, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and the first whose character physically struck a white co-star on screen. Both were landmarks in movie history.
Poitier was more than Hollywood's leading man at the height of his acting career. He was a cultural icon, an author, humanitarian, and activist for social and political issues.
He had a number of iconic performances in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1967 Poitier appeared in three hit movies — To Sir, with Love in which he played a schoolteacher; In the Heat of the Night in which he played Virgil Tibbs, a black detective from the North, who helps solve a murder in a southern town and wins the respect of the prejudiced police chief there; and the comedy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, in which Poitier's character is engaged to a white woman. The film was Hollywood's first love story between members of different races that did not end tragically.
At the time filming began for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 US states. These laws were only revoked by the Supreme Court months before the film was released. Poitier, however, faced criticism from some black civil rights activists, who complained his characters were just too good to be true. The criticism helped to persuade him to move away from acting roles. He involved himself in the campaign for Bahamian Independence, achieved in 1973, and began a new career as a director. By the end of the 1970s, Poitier had formed his own production company with other stars, including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand.
Successes behind the camera included Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and the thrillers Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita. Poitier became the first black actor to receive a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1992. Five years later, he was appointed The Bahamas' ambassador to Japan. Poitier, who rejected film roles based on offensive racial stereotypes, earned acclaim for portraying dignified, keenly intelligent men.
As a civil rights activist, Poitier was among the celebrity figures who attended the March on Washington in 1963. The next year, just months after becoming the first black winner of the Best Actor Oscar, Poitier and his long-time friend Harry Belafonte marched to Greenwood, Mississippi, to deliver US$70,000 in cash to help fund the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee voter registration drive, known as Freedom Summer. Poitier was once again a pioneer in using his influence and money to support voter registration for African Americans. ,
Sidney Poitier's life and achievements mattered. He paved the path for many African American actors such as Denzil Washington and Halle Berry, who also earned Oscar Awards.
Poitier wrote four books — This Life (1980); The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000); Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008); and Montaro Caine (2013), a novel that was described as part mystery, part science fiction.
In all he acted in more than 50 films and directed nine, starting in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher in which he co-starred with Harry Belafonte. Interestingly, both Belafonte and Poitier have Caribbean connections. Belafonte's mother was Jamaican.
In 2009 Poitier was awarded the highest US civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his artistic and humanitarian achievements by President Barack Obama. The 2014 Academy Awards ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of Poitier's historic Oscar and he was there to present the award for best director.
Sidney Poitier was well respected not only in Hollywood, but also internationally. Poitier did more than entertain, he educated generations regarding their humanity. Poitier, who died at age 94 on January 6, 2022, will be missed.
In the words of former US President Barack Obama, “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomised dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together.”
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.