Black History Month: Remembering Sidney Poitier

Posted by on Feb 16, 2022 in Top Stories

Iconic actor Sidney Poitier passed away on January 6, 2022, at the age of 94. Poitier broke down barriers for actors of color by playing roles that, for the first time, didn’t demean or diminish people of color. Instead, Poitier played leading roles, portraying characters who were strong and brave and dignified. He was also the first Black male to receive an Academy Award for Best Actor. His career helped pave the way for a more diverse and inclusive American film industry. Here, btw takes a closer look at his life and contributions.

Who Was Sidney Poitier?

Poitier was born in 1927 in Miami, Florida, while his parents were visiting on vacation from the Bahamas. He was two and a half months premature. When he was strong enough, his family travelled back to their home in the Bahamas, where he grew up on his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island. When he was ten, the family moved to Nassau. But Poitier got into so much trouble there that his father decided to send him to live with one of his brothers in Miami. Poitier stayed in Miami until he was sixteen, when he moved to New York City and discovered his passion for acting. He worked as a janitor at the American Negro Theater in exchange for acting lessons, and eventually made his way to the stage.

Breaking New Ground

Poitier’s first major role came in 1950, in which he played a doctor accused of malpractice by a white family in a movie called “No Way Out.” At the time, it was groundbreaking to portray a Black man as a doctor. In 1951, he had a role in “Cry, the Beloved Country,” a movie about South African apartheid. Poitier’s breakthrough role came in 1955, when he played a gifted student in an inner-city school in “Blackboard Jungle.” Three years later, he received an Academy Award nomination for his role in a crime drama called “The Defiant Ones.” And in 1964, he won a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in “Lillies of the Field.”

But some of his most legendary work was yet to come. In 1967, in a movie called “In the Heat of the Night,” Poitier portrayed a Philadelphia police detective investigating a crime and confronting racial bigotry in Mississippi. In the same year, he played a Black man engaged to a white woman in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a movie that dealt with interracial marriage. The movie was released six months after the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage across the United States.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame, in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California
A section of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in Los Angeles, California.

In 1972, Poitier directed his first film: the Western “Buck and the Preacher.” Over his entire career, Poitier acted, directed, or produced almost sixty films. In 1980, he directed the comedy “Stir Crazy,” which was the highest-grossing film made by an director of color. (and held that record for many years). His career outside of film was impressive as well: in 1997, at the age of seventy, he was appointed ambassador from the Bahamas to Japan. He is an acclaimed author, and in 2009, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. He was also appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, which meant that he could use the title “sir,” though he chose not to.

Saying Goodbye

Poitier died in his Beverly Hills home at the age of 94, from heart failure resulting from Alzheimer’s disease and prostate cancer. He is survived by his first wife, Juanita Hardy; his current wife, Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus; and his six children.

What Do You Think? In your opinion, what was  Sidney Poitier’s most important or groundbreaking role? Why?