When the death of Sidney Poitier, beloved Bahamian-American and trailblazing movie star, was announced last Friday, black people worldwide were the most saddened but such was his brilliance that everyone of a certain age with even a smattering knowledge of the silver screen was dismayed too. Poitier passed away on Thursday evening from natural causes.
Hailed as the first black actor to majorly breakthrough in Hollywood as a conventional leading man, in uncompromising roles that subverted the film industry’s archaic stereotypes, one of Poitier’s finest speeches came at the 2001 annual NAACP Image Awards. He stressed the importance of all the NAACP’s great contribution to black issues in the US. “That same encouragement was always on hand to inspire us all, to stand firm, hold our ground and refused to be moved whenever the question of survival was at stake,” he said.
He broke racial barriers in the post-war years in Hollywood like no other which is why Kyle Bowser of the NAACP said: “When Sidney Poitier gets slapped by a white man on camera and in a millisecond he turns and slaps that white man back, as a young man growing up black in America that was like someone turning on a light in a dark room. It was synonymous with James Brown saying: ‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.’”
Poitier was born in Miami, two months prematurely, while his family was visiting for the weekend. From humble beginnings, he went on to become a beloved US household name and impactful actor through his works on the big screen. No wonder Bahamian flags are officially flying at half-mast this week in his honour.
He grew up in the Bahamas, moved to Miami at 15, then to New York City a year later. Whilst doing menial jobs, Poitier joined the North American Negro Theatre in New York and landed a breakthrough role as a high school student in the film ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in 1955.
In 1964, he became the first black male and Bahamian actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, and went on to win two more, Golden Globes nominations, Emmy Awards nominations, BAFTA nominations, Laurel nominations, and one Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination. Poitier’s acting career spanned 71 years. He was the oldest living and earliest surviving male Academy Award winner.
Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans were grappling with social changes wrought by the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Poitier was as committed as the other black luminaries of the time, including Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Jesse Jackson, and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.
From his successful buddy movies (‘The Defiant Ones’, ‘Duel at Diablo’) to his spate of critical hits (‘To Sir, With Love’, ‘In the Heat of the Night’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’), Poitier played roles that broadened the range and repertoire of black masculinity.
His talent, charisma, vast intellect and good looks made him a superstar unlike any black actor before him, many of whom were caricatured or overlooked during Hollywood’s studio era. Yet even with his huge fame, Poitier was criticised for not instigating more projects highlighting the complexities of the black experience.
Poitier remained in New York – Mt. Vernon in Westchester County, where he raised six daughters from two marriages until his death. He also had eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Humble and personable to the end, he once said: “I think about death, but I'm not fearful of it. I've reduced the concept of my existence, by saying, ‘I truly, truly try to be better tomorrow than I was today.’ And I mean better as simply a better human being, not a better actor. That will please me well. And, when I die I will not be afraid of having lived.”