The acting legend has died at the age of 94.
Among the many films of his that I saw, I loved A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the FieldTo Sir With Love (1967). The film I utterly disliked was one that received great acclaim, and that was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) where he played the fiancee of a white woman and had to overcome the latent prejudices of her liberal parents. He had to play an almost impossibly accomplished and personally flawless person in the film, in order to gain acceptance.
The main problem he faced was that he entered the film world as an almost illiterate immigrant from the Bahamas (though he was born in Miami when his parents were visiting briefly) during Jim Crow and racial unrest in the US. After struggling tremendously, he was one of the first main black leads and was mindful that he would be taken as a representative of black people. Hence his roles almost always was that of a good guy. It must have irked him that he could not broaden his acting range and play edgy or even outright villainous roles, like his peers Robert Mitchum or Richard Widmark. He had the kind of looks, easy grace, on-screen charm and charisma that made him eminently watchable, like Cary Grant, who also never played the bad guy.
Here is a scene from one of his best films In the Heat of the Night (1967) where he plays a Philadelphia detective and circumstances result in him investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town, partnered with another great actor Rod Steiger who plays the local sheriff.
Here is an article by director Paul Kyriazi that tells the story of Poitier’s start in acting and gives some background on how the above scene came about.
Five years after winning the Academy Award for ‘Lilies of the Field’, Sidney Poitier was offered the lead in ‘In the Heat of the Night’ to be produced by Walter Mirisch (West Side Story, The Magnificent 7)
Poitier said, “When I read the script, I said, ‘Walter I cant play this. The scene requires me to be slapped by a wealthy man and I just look at him fiercely and walk away. That is not very bright in today’s culture. It’s dumb.
“This is 1968. You can’t do that. The black community will look at that and be appalled, because the human response would be different. You certainly won’t do the movie with me this way.
“‘If I do this movie, I insist to respond as a human being; he pops me and I pop him right back. If you want me to play it, you will put that in writing. Also in writing you will say ‘If this picture plays in the south, that scene is never removed.’ Walter said, ‘Yeah, I promise you that and I’ll put it in writing.’
“But being the kind of guy Walter is, his handshake and his word are the same, so I didn’t need to have it in writing, and he kept his word. That scene made the movie. Without it, the movie wouldn’t have been as popular.”
The movie won five Academy Awards: Best Picture – Best Screenplay – Best Editing – Best Sound – Best Actor Rod Steiger.
Poitier paved the way for other black actors and Denzel Washington, who was the second black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar, paid tribute in his Oscar acceptance speech and after his death. He spoke of Poitier as his mentor and how generous Poitier was with advice as he was starting out.
“It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend,” Washington said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family.”
Poitier was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers in Hollywood, becoming the first Black man to take home the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963 for Lilies of the Field.
In 2002, he was honored by the Academy Awards for his lifetime of remarkable accomplishments, with Washington presenting him with the award, calling him “unique.”
The night ended up being one that Poitier had almost certainly dreamed of, as Washington became the second Black man to win Best Actor for Training Day, and Halle Berry cried on stage as she accepted the Best Actress award for Monster’s Ball—the first Black woman to be honored.
The magnitude of the historic triumph wasn’t lost on Washington, who devoted the first portion of his acceptance speech to the man he called his mentor.
“Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney [Poitier], they finally give it to me, what’d they do? They give it to him the same night,” he joked. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you.”
Here is a mashup of scenes from To Sir With Love set to the theme music by Lulu. In the film, he plays a West Indian immigrant teacher who takes a job in a rough, white, working class neighborhood in England and has to deal with rebellious and rowdy students who see no value in education. You can see why Poitier was such a powerful on-screen personality.
Sidney Poitier, a truly class act.