“All those who see unworthiness when they look at me and are given thereby to denying me value — to you I say, ‘I’m not talking about being as good as you. I hereby declare myself better than you,’” Sidney Poitier wrote in “The Measure of a Man,” his 2000 memoir.
The first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of a handyman in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field” died on Thursday, January 6, at the age of 94 in Los Angeles.
Sir Sidney Poitier, who was a trailblazing Black Hollywood movie idol, is being remembered not only for his contributions to entertainment but also his mark on American civil rights. His film roles challenged the way that Hollywood had previously portrayed Blacks in demeaning, slap-happy situations.
In a 2009 interview with the Academy of Achievement, Poitier, who was born in Miami to Bahamian parents, says acting came about as an accident. “I was looking for a dishwashing job in the Amsterdam News, and I saw the phrase ‘actors wanted,’ and I said I was an actor.” Poitier flubbed the reading with the American Negro Theatre and was told to go find a dishwashing job. However, afterward Poitier worked with the Theatre on many of his earlier projects.
“I realized then and there that what he said was his perception of my worth. He perceived me to be of no value beyond something that I could do with my hands. I was offended deeply. And I said to myself, ‘I have to rectify that.’”
About ten years later, Poitier had his first notable role in “No Way Out,” where he plays a Black doctor, and the death of one of the racist suspects threatens a race riot. He starred in nearly 20 films, before his historic role in “Lilies of the Field,” and his Oscar win meant as much to the larger Black population as it did for Poitier and his family.
Some of those films were: “Blackboard Jungle,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Paris Blues,” and “A Raisin in the Sun”—that while misogynistic at times—covered Lorraine Hansberry’s multi-generational play about Chicago’s housing discrimination, Black wealth and legacy, sibling rivalry, abortion and African culture.
Then came “A Patch of Blue,” where Poitier’s accountant character helps a young, blind white woman, and the film featured the first Black man to kiss a white woman in the movies, “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” where Poitier plays a doctor considering an interracial marriage.
Other films include: “To Sir with Love,” “The Love of Ivy” and 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” which gave viewers a slap that could be felt across the planet. In the film, a white plantation owner slapped Poitier’s police detective character, Virgil Tibbs, and Tibbs reeled back and slapped the man as if that one slap could erase all the years of racism.
Poitier said: “[The scene] was almost not there. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll make this movie for you if you give me your absolute guarantee when he slaps me, I slap him right back and you guarantee that it will play in every version of this movie.’ I try not to do things that are against nature.” He explained that he would be insulting every Black person if he didn’t slap Endicott back. He vowed to only make movies where his character was in a position of power–and most often more powerful than any white male co-star.
Poitier’s other films ran the gamut from love stories like “A Warm December,” action films, dramas, comedies like “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again,” and westerns like “Buck and the Preacher,” which he starred in with his longtime friend and fellow Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte.
Tributes for Poitier, who was honored by former President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, came from all over. Obama said in a Twitter post: “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors.”
President Joe Biden told the New York Times that Poitier had “held a mirror up to America’s racial attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Crusader that he was saddened by the death of Poitier, who he called a “pioneer and peace-setter,” a “magnetic man,” who used his excellent acting career as a “weapon to open closed doors in movies, radio and television for African Americans.”
“A victim of stereotypes, when Black men were suppressed and when we were overwhelmed by images that demeaned us, Sidney Poitier was the man for the times, uplifting and enlightening us. When he said, ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs,’ it sent a message of consciousness and hope around the world. He used his celebrity as a weapon to open closed doors and to raise standards for all actors. He illuminated light in the darkness.”
Good friend Harry Belafonte said: “Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could. He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”
Belafonte’s daughter, Shari, told People Magazine, “Losing Sidney is probably the most difficult thing my father has had to fathom, more so than losing Martin L. King. They have known and loved each other for more than 70 years, collaborating, living life to the fullest. While Harry was much more vocal and seemingly more instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement via his stage presence and his navigating the dynamics between leaders and politicians, Sidney broke those barriers in a much more creative way by taking a stand in the characters he portrayed so brilliantly on film.”
Denzel Washington told People Magazine: “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family.”
Washington, D.C.-based People For the American Way’s president Benjamin Jealous: “To say we lost a giant in Sidney Poitier is a profound understatement. He was courageous, gracious, commanding of respect and genuinely kind. Poitier had a profound impact on me and was a great inspiration to a generation of activists as he challenged stereotypical portrayals of Black men and committed himself to the art of raising standards with depictions of dignified characters.”
FACETS Film Program Director Charles Coleman added this examination: “The German poet Rilke once said, ‘Be ahead of all departure, as if it were already behind you, like the winter which is almost over,’ a sentiment which all of us unhappily share with the loss of Sidney Poitier, the first bona fide African-American movie star. Among his many accolades, which included being the first black performer to win an Oscar for best actor in a leading role, an honor he richly deserved, but he also demonstrated that obstacles can be overcome, despite circumstances that would demand a different result.”
“His cool demeanor and perspective were admirable in such gems as ‘No Way Out’ (1950), a film noir which boldly addressed the volatility of racism and violence, which are tolerated in our contemporary society. He not only led by example, but also had the prescience to know how he would be perceived by the roles that he chose, knowing that he represented a cause greater than himself, as a man of color working in Hollywood.”
“His audiences recognized his integrity which not only resulted in his meteoric rise whose stardom appealed to all audiences, but he also possessed such distinguishable traits, such as the way by which he would deliver his lines which were charming yet precise. At the same time, he showcased his reverence for the theatre as he made an ambitious career transition from the stage (landmark role in ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ (both onstage and screen) to the extraordinary performance ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ with its pivotal scene where Poitier’s character slaps a racist white man, which he insisted had to be included in the film, having not been in the original script. Just by being himself, he paved the way for a whole generation of actors, directors and writers of African-American descent.”
Writer, founder of Black Cape Magazine and Hollywood Critics Association member Jonita Davis notes the impact that Poitier’s role in “Blackboard Jungle” had on films to come afterward, saying:“His films are a cultural critic’s dream. If I want to write about Blackness in a certain time period in film or Black social treatment, Poitier films top the list. If you ask critics where the ‘tough Black inner-city teacher’ trope started, they will say Morgan Freeman’s ‘Lean On Me.’ Not true. You will see echoes of ‘Blackboard Jungle’ in ‘Lean On Me’ and every film that centers Black kids in a violent inner-city school and a teacher hellbent on ‘changing’ them.” https://theblackcapemag.com/.
Poitier received several entertainment honors, and others from the country of the Bahamas, which included a Knighthood and appointment as Ambassador to Japan. During his career, he was involved in fighting for civil rights in the United States; the importance of which could be summed up in this quote from him: “I felt as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made.”
Poitier leaves behind his wife of 46 years, Joanna Shimkus, daughters and other family members.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, https://www.lulu.com/spotlight/englewoodelaine/ email: [email protected].