A Tribute to Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier wasn’t the first great African-American movie star. Stepin Fetchit has that honor, and he played the part offscreen in a flamboyant style that he was never allowed to adopt onscreen. Poitier wasn’t the first Black actor to win or even be nominated for an Oscar, either. (He was nominated for The Defiant Ones in 1959 and won for Lillies of the Field in 1964.) Hattie McDaniel won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gone With the Wind in 1939, twenty years earlier. He wasn’t even the first great Black actor on the screen; I think most would agree that Paul Robeson deserves that honor, despite the red-baiting that obscured his marvelous career and talents.
What Sidney Poitier did was to become the first Black actor to gain widespread acceptance by audiences of all races purely for his acting ability and screen presence. And he did it in a big way. In 1967 he not only starred in the biggest boxoffice hit of the year, but the #2 and #3 hits, as well. At one time, he was recognized as the #1 boxoffice star in America. So he has earned the right to be treated as a great classic star, regardless of race. And this tribute article is being written not because of Black History Month, but because February 20, 1927 is his birthday.
Born in Miami, Florida of Bahamian parents (during a visit in 1927, though some biographies mention an earlier year as a result of his having lied about his age at one point in order to get a part), he began his life in poverty, which became even worse when he left the Bahamas and came to the United States with no money and no prospects. In addition to racial discrimination, he was also hampered even among people of color because of his thick Bahamian accent. (After his first audition, he was told by the director to become a dishwasher.) His effort to get rid of it resulted in a distinctive speech pattern that became one of his trademarks, along with his piercing gaze and magnetic smile.
Sidney Poitier’s most famous quote is this one: “If you apply reason and logic to this career of mine, you’re not going to get very far… The journey has been incredible from its beginning. So much of life, it seems to me, is determined by pure randomness.”
Poitier is welcome to believe that if he wants, but to my mind there was nothing random about it. From the moment he first appeared in a starring role, as a young doctor (five years younger than the 27 he originally claimed) opposite a scary Richard Widmark in No Way Out (1950), it was clear that he had something special. And he was careful to nurture his career by refusing to accept roles that detracted from his dignity as a human being, choosing his spots carefully, but taking advantage of the opportunities that arose beginning in the 1950s. His career grew rather slowly compared to careers of young actors today. It was five more years until his next real breakthrough in Blackboard Jungle (1955), and then two more years until The Defiant Ones (1957).
Until the 60s, his major film roles revolved around his race. This was not the case with Lillies of the Field, for which he won the Oscar. Nor was it really true for The Bedford Incident (1965), A Patch of Blue (1965), or To Sir, With Love (1967), though race was an element in each of those films. However, once established as an actor first and a Black man second, he took on the role for which he is probably most highly regarded, and which he was born to play — Detective Virgil Tibbs in the racially-charged In the Heat of the Night (1967). It was a film whose echoes were heard beyond the movie theatres, and which opened the door for many more films with strong Black characters.
Sidney Poitier was so successful that he eventually became mainstream! How mainstream? After Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), he was criticized by some members of the Black community for roles which seemed to be unfashionably focused on integration. He directed his first film in 1972, five years before Spike Lee. In April 1997, he was named the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan. He also sits on Walt Disney’s Board of Directors, and recently received the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award.
It’s been a long climb for a penniless Bahamian immigrant who once slept in the bus station. But well worth it for film fans, and for those hundreds of actors for whom he showed the way. Please enjoy the links on this page and the three other pages of this article. Although I was unable to find any dedicated tribute sites (a potential project for one of our members?), this feature includes links to articles, pages from other movie sites, film reviews, photos, posters, and more. Don’t forget to click below for Parts II, III, and IV.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Books, Photos, Art, and Posters