According to Eugene Torchon Newry, the acting director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Bahamas, Poitier, who won the 1964 best actor Oscar for "Lilies of the Field", died in the Bahamas on Thursday.
It is rare that Black movie stars have had such an impact on the screen and in real life. No Black actor could have a long-lasting career as a leading performer before Poitier, who was the son of Bahamian tomato farmers. Few Black actors had the freedom to break away from stereotypes like bug-eyed servants or grinning entertainers before Poitier. Hollywood filmmakers had never attempted to tell the Black story before Poitier.
Poitier was honored and mourned by many messages on social media. Whoopi Goldberg wrote on Twitter, "He showed us how we can reach for the stars," while Tyler Perry wrote on Instagram: "The grace & class that this man had throughout his entire life, and the example he set me for not only as Black man but also as a human being, will never be forgotten." Lenny Kravitz, a musician, wrote that Poitier had "showed that with vision, grace, anything is possible."
The country's profound changes of the 1950s and 1960s mirrored Poitier’s rise. Poitier was the performer that a cautious industry looked to for stories of success as racial attitudes changed during the civil rights era.
He was the Black prisoner who escapes to befriend a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis), and he was the courtly worker in "The Defiant Ones," who falls in love in "A Patch of Blue" with a blind girl. He was also the handyman in the "Lilies of the Field," who builds a church for a group of nuns. He was the young, ambitious father who clashed with the dreams of his family in Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun."
Poitier is the central figure in Hollywood's diversity debate. His handsome, flawless visage, intense stare, and disciplined style made him not only the most beloved Black movie star but also the only one.
In a 1988 Newsweek interview, he said that he made films "when the only other Black on all the lot was the shoehine boy". "I was the only guy in town."
Poitier's 1967 peak was achieved with three of the most memorable movies of the year: "To Sir, With Love," which he starred in as a teacher at a London secondary school. "In the Heat of the Night," where he played the role of Virgil Tibbs, a determined detective for the police. "Guess Who's Come to Dinner" starred him as a prominent doctor who wants to marry a young white girl he had just met. Their final film together, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
Theater owners voted Poitier No. Poitier was the No. 1 actor in 1967, making him the first Black actor to be ranked on the list. Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. His steady bearing was often compared to Poitier’s. He said that the actor "not just entertained, but enlightened... revealing the power of silver screen to bring people closer together."
His appeal caused him to bear burdens similar to those of Jackie Robinson or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was subject to racism from whites, and accused of compromise by the Black community. Poitier was held to a higher standard than his white peers. He was not one to be cowardly and took on characters of almost divine goodness, particularly in "Guess Who's Come to Dinner". His most memorable line, "They call me Mr. Tibbs!" -- taken from "In the Heat of the Night" -- reveals his steady, yet resolute, and sometimes humorous personality.
"All those who look at me and see in me unworthiness, and are given thereby by them to deny me value -- to me I say, I'm talking about being better than you. In his 2000 memoir, "The Measure of a Man", he declared that he was better than him.
He was criticised for his lack of understanding even during his prime. He was called Uncle Tom and a million-dollar shoeshie boy. In 1967, The New York Times published Clifford Mason's essay "Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier so?" Mason described Poitier's films and his actor as "a schizophrenic escape from historical fact" and Poitier as a pawn in the "white man’s sense of what's wrong."
Stardom did not protect Poitier against racism and condescension. Poitier had difficulty finding housing in Los Angeles, and was followed closely by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi when he visited in 1964. This was just a few months after three civil rights workers were murdered in that state. Journalists often asked him about race and current affairs, while ignoring his work.
During a 1967 press conference, he said, "I am an American, artist, American, contemporary." "I'm an awful lot of things so I hope you will give me the respect due."
Poitier wasn't as politically engaged as Harry Belafonte (his friend and contemporaneous), which led to occasional disputes between them. He was a participant in the 1963 March of Washington and other civil rights events. As an actor, he defended himself and took risks with his career. During the 1950s, Hollywood was banning suspected Communists from acting in movies, he refused to sign loyalty vows and turned down roles that he considered offensive.
He recalled that "almost all of the job opportunities were reflective the stereotypical perceptions of Blacks which had infected every part of the country." "I arrived with an inability of doing those things. It wasn't in my nature. My work was meant to reflect my values.
Poitier's movies were often about personal triumphs, not broad political themes. But the classic Poitier role from "In the Heat of the Night to "Guess Who's Come to Dinner" was as a Black man of such dignity and composure. Poitier's film became synonymous with the term "dignified" -- that is, he wins over the whites who oppose him.
In the 1960s, his screen career began to fade as Black and White political movements became more radicalized and explicit. Acting less often and giving fewer interviews, he began directing. His credits include the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy "Stir Crazy," the "Buck and the Preacher", which co-starred Poitier and Belafonte, and the Bill Cosby comedies, "Uptown Saturday Night" and “Let's Do It Another.”
He appeared in several feature films, including "Sneakers" (the Jackal) and "The Jackal", and was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes as the future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshal in "Separate But Equal." An Emmy nomination and Golden Globe nomination for his role in "Seakers" and "The Jackal," and an Emmy nomination and Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela ("Mandela, De Klerk") were two of Separation" (John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation" about a con-artist claiming to be Poitier.
Poitier was awarded many honorary prizes, including an American Film Institute lifetime achievement award and a special Academy Award. This award came on the same night as Black actors won the best acting awards for Washington and Halle Berry for Monster's Ball.
"I'll never stop chasing you Sidney," Washington said in his acceptance speech. He had previously presented the honorary award for Poitier. "I'll never stop following your steps. "There's nothing I would prefer to do, sir. There's nothing that I would rather be doing."
Juanita Hardy was Poitier's first wife. He had four children with her and Joanna Shimkus had two. Joanna Shimkus was Poitier's second wife. Sydney Tamaii Poitier appeared in television shows such as "Veronica Mars" (Mr. Knight."
Although his life ended in adulation it started in hardship. Poitier, who weighed just 3 pounds at birth, was born in Miami. His parents were going to deliver tomatoes from their small island on Cat Island, Bahamas. Poitier spent his childhood on the island with its 1,500 inhabitants and no electricity. He quit school at 12 1/2 to support his family. He was then sent to Miami to live with his brother. His father was worried that the streets of Nassau would be a negative influence on his son. Sidney traveled steerage aboard a mail-cargo vessel with $3 in his pocket.
He said that the smell from that section of the boat was so bad that he spent a lot of the crossing heaving across the side. In 1999, he also told The Associated Press that Miami had taught him about racism. "I quickly learned that certain places were not allowed and that I would be interrogated if I went to different neighborhoods."
Poitier moved from Harlem to escape the first winter. He was so overwhelmed by Harlem that he enlisted with the Army. Poitier was shocked at the cruel treatment of soldiers by the nurses and doctors when he was assigned to Long Island's mental hospital. He wrote in his 1980 autobiography "This Life" about how he managed to escape the Army by pretending to be insane.
He was back in Harlem looking for a dishwasher job in the Amsterdam News when he saw an advertisement seeking actors for the American Negro Theater. He was given a script and instructed to take the stage. Poitier, who had never seen a play before in his entire life, couldn't even read. The director walked him to the door after he had stumbled through his lines with a thick Caribbean accent.
"As I walked towards the bus, the thing that humiliated was the suggestion that he only saw in me was a dishwasher. Poitier told the AP that if I accepted him, I would help him to make that perception prophetic.
"I was so mad that I decided to be an actor, whatever that means. Although I don't wish to be an actor I must be able to show my father that I can do more than just being a dishwasher.
As he read words from newspapers, the process took several months. Poitier was rejected again by the American Negro Theater. In return for acting lessons, he agreed to act as janitor at the theater. His fellow students encouraged him to be part of the class play when he was finally released. Belafonte from the Caribbean was chosen to play the lead role. His understudy Poitier was able to perform the preview because Belafonte had to work janitorial duties.
He was cast in an all-Black production of "Lysistrata" by a Broadway producer. His performance won him an understudy role in Anna Lucasta and, later, he became the main character in the road company. He made his screen debut in 1950 with "No Way Out," where he played the role of a doctor who leaves behind a white patient. Richard Widmark plays the patient's racist brother.
Poitier's first major film was "Blackboard Jungle," in which he played a hard-working high school student who was not yet 20 years old. "The Defiant Ones" brought Poitier his first nomination for best actor and his first award for any Black male. Poitier, a Baptist handyman, built a chapel to house a group of Roman Catholic nuns from Germany. This lighthearted film reflected the theme of cultural differences. He gives them an English lesson in one scene.
Hattie McDaniel was the only Black actor to win a competition Oscar. She was the 1939 best supporting actor for "Gone With the Wind" and was considered the best film of the year. Newman was also a supporter of Poitier.
Anne Bancroft, the presenter, announced Poitier's victory. The audience cheered so loudly that Poitier almost forgot his speech. He declared, "It's been a long road to get here."
Poitier did not pretend that his Oscar was a "magic wand" for Black performers. He observed that he didn't believe that it was. But he believed he was fortunate and encouraged others to follow him.
"To the young African American filmmakers, I am overwhelmed by pride that you are here. He said, "I am sure you have found it wasn't impossible, it was just more difficult," as he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the American Film Institute in 1992. "
"Welcome, young Blacks. All of us who have gone before you look back with satisfaction. I leave you with one simple trust: Be true and be helpful to the journey.