RIP Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

This one hurts the most of all. When asked what living movie star I would marry if I had to chance to pick, I always used to answer “Sidney Poitier.” When people pointed out his age (as I am still in my 20s), I responded “Well, are you going to find a better man to be with than that?” Poitier will forever be known as the first black actor to win “Best Actor” at the Oscars, but he was also the first major black movie star. Sure, Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte were technically movie stars before Poitier, but Poitier was the biggest name at the box office and was such a big star he pretty much broke Hollywood’s racist idea that a black movie star couldn’t be a successful and well-loved leading man. It seems everyone in the 1960s either wanted to be with him or be him, no matter what their race was. Without Poitier, would we have Denzel Washington? Jamie Foxx? Chadwick Boseman? Poitier wasn’t just a big name on-screen but a big name among activists. He wasn’t happy just being an anomality in his fame, he wanted that fame to be possible for any black person. He was one of the most respectable film stars of the classic era and the world is so much better for having him on-screen.

With friend Richard Widmark in his film debut No Way Out (1950)

Poitier came from the Bahamas (although born prematurely in Miami, Florida) where he grew-up in poverty. We moved from the Bahamas to Florida to New York. While in New York, Poitier worked on his performance skills and overcoming his accent. After a brief stint in small stage work including on Broadway, Poitier was noticed by Darryl F. Zanuck who wanted him to star in No Way Out (1950) alongside big names at the time including Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, and Stephen McNally (the movie also features uncredited work from Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who also proved the ability to shine on-camera). Poitier plays a doctor who becomes the subject of racism when he has to treat two bigoted patients. The role of the main bigot was played by Widmark who was the polar opposite of the role he played in the movie. Widmark became one of Poitier’s closest friends and the two would work together two more times after their first initial success.

With Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle (1955)

Poitier’s impressive work in his film debut led to more movies although his parts weren’t always as big as the one he had in his debut. He has a good role in Zoltan Korda’s solid adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country (1951) which was actually filmed in apartheid South Africa (Korda lied to South African authorities that Poitier and film lead Canada Lee were his servants so they could freely be associated with one another while shooting there). Poitier also had good roles in Red Ball Express (1952) starring Jeff Chandler and Blackboard Jungle (1955) starring Glenn Ford. The later helped boost Poitier’s screen credit once again by casting him as an inner-city youth who avoids potential delinquency and dropping out after being inspired to continue his education by teacher Ford. The movie was controversial (mainly because it dared play rock n’ roll music in its soundtrack) but also a major hit. Poitier continued with big roles in Something of Value (1957) co-starring Rock Hudson, Band of Angels (1957) co-starring Clark Gable, and The Mark of the Hawk (1957) co-starring Eartha Kitt.

With Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958)

One of Poitier’s best early roles came with Edge of the City (1957). Poitier plays a longshoreman who befriends a runaway played by John Cassavetes. Poitier was also paired with common co-star Ruby Dee. The movie boosts good performances all around, but it is the main friendship shown between Poitier and Cassavetes’s characters that sticks with the view the most after seeing it. The movie also deals with the quiet racism that Poitier deals with even when it seems he is mostly occupying a world somewhat mostly free of discrimination. The movie detailing hidden racism that the white antagonist (played by Jack Warden) hides must have been relevant to many minority viewers and even today. Poitier’s best 1950s role came with The Defiant Ones (1958), though, opposite Tony Curtis. The two were both nominated for “Best Actor” at the Oscars for their performances as a black man and a white man chained to each other after running away from a chain gang. They deal with racism and a budding friendship that neither one sees coming until their loyalty is each tested at different times. The movie was also notable as Poitier received above-the-title billing along with Curtis (which was insisted on by Curtis). Poitier became the first black actor nominated for “Best Actor” for The Defiant Ones and the movie helped break racial barriers in Hollywood particularly with its billing system.

With Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Afterwards, Poitier continued with roles in Porgy and Bess (1959) in the former title role opposite Dorothy Dandridge, Paris Blues (1961) opposite Paul Newman as well as Joanne Woodard and Poitier’s one-time girlfriend Diahann Carroll, and Pressure Point (1962) opposite Bobby Darin. One of Poitier’s best films came from this time which was A Raisin in the Sun (1961), a filmization of Lorraine Hansberry’s play which featured a cast of mainly black actors. Poitier gives one of his best performances and the cast are all incredible including Claudia McNeil as his mother and Ruby Dee as his wife. The movie was a film version of a stage play done properly and the execution was as gripping as its material was meant to be.

With Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field (1963)

One of Poitier’s most important films came with Lilies of the Field (1963). The film is an enjoyable film about Poitier getting roped into building a chapel for nuns. It is a role that requires nearly everything from Poitier including sensitivity, humor, and charisma. Most actors couldn’t have given the slam-dunk performance that Poitier does as he embodies his part perfectly. The scene where Poitier teaches the nuns some English words and phrases is a particular highlight and talk about movies that make you feel good after watching them. The movie was important to Poitier because it was what won him “Best Actor” at the Oscars where he became the first black actor to win the prestigious award. Movies like A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and Lilies of the Field (1963) also proved that Poitier had enough star-power to front a film himself rather than share the spotlight as he had been doing before.

With Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue (1965)

Poitier’s next films include The Bedford Incident (1965) which reteamed him with Richard Widmark. The film role was important for Poitier as it doesn’t mention his race and could have been played by a white actor. He played the role as the reporter aboard the destroyer who witnesses a Moby Dick-like scenario involving Widmark’s captain. Poitier also played a role that really required his acting chops with The Slender Thread (1965) where he plays a college volunteer at a crisis center who has to try to prevent a suicide by a woman caller (Anne Bancroft). It was Poitier’s role in A Patch of Blue (1965) that really broke some mold, however. The movie details a blind girl (Elizabeth Hartman) falling in love with Sidney Poitier’s character, unaware that he is black. The movie proved that Poitier was a vital romantic star, and the movie was even a hit in parts of the South.

To Sir, with Love (1967)

1967 might have been Poitier’s most important year on-camera as he was placed in three hits. One was To Sir, with Love (1967) where he plays a teacher in the London slums which kind of reversed his role in Blackboard Jungle (1955). The movie wasn’t expected to be a hit in the states as Columbia Pictures didn’t think American audiences would care about a movie involving a teacher inspiring British students, but it did become a hit. The studio did market research on why the film was surprisingly popular in America and they got their answer: audiences came to see Sidney Poitier.

With Lee Grant and Rod Steiger on the set of In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Poitier also made In the Heat of the Night which was released in 1967 and would win that year’s “Best Picture” Oscar. The movie has Poitier play the iconic Virgil Tibbs who is a detective that gets assigned to a case in the South where he has to work alongside bigoted police officer Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger). Poitier frequently cited the movie as his favorite out of all his films and it is certainly one of his most famous. The movie contains several great scenes including one where Poitier slaps a racist (played by Larry Gates) in the face after Gates has the audacity to slap Poitier first. The scene originally had Virgil take Gates’ slap without a responsive slap, but Poitier insisted he was insulting every black man if he didn’t get to slap Gates’ character back. He also made sure the scene wouldn’t be cut in the South when screened. The result is one of the most satisfying scenes on film. It perfectly displays that black people were done taking abuse from white people.

With Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Poitier’s third film in 1967 was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) where Poitier plays a black man engaged to the daughter of two influential liberal San Franciscans whose prejudice is tested. Hollywood power couple Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn played the parents and Katharine Houghton played Poitier’s fiancée. The movie wasn’t your typical “bigot learns racism is bad” plot as it actually showcased two people who claimed to be for civil rights and taught their daughter to accept people of all races, but they didn’t expect her to actually fall in love with someone of a different race. While parts of the movie are up for debate, most notably how perfect Poitier’s character is (although that has been explained by the filmmakers as they only wanted the parents to have an objection to the racial differences rather than Poitier’s character), the movie became another massive hit and scooped up a line of awards. I’m also sure we’ve all seen this one a lot. Not to mention, how satisfying it is to see Tracy, Hepburn, and Poitier all on screen together?

With future wife Joanna Shimkus in The Lost Man (1969)

Poitier was now the biggest start at the U.S. box office. While his follow-up movies aren’t as widely beloved (or as widely seen) as his prior classics, they did prove to be important. This includes a reimagining of Odd Man Out, The Lost Man (1969) where Poitier co-starred with his future wife, Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus. It was the movie where they met and they began dating, although they wouldn’t officially marry until 1976. They remained married until Poitier’s passing on January 7th, 2022. Poitier also played Virgil Tibbs in some sequels, but it would probably be Buck and the Preacher (1972) (co-starring Poitier’s lifelong friend, Harry Belafonte) that marked his most important work of the early 1970s as it was the movie that made Poitier start directing. Poitier directed the movie on advice from Shimkus when he creatively disagreed with director Joseph Sargent.

With Richard Pryor on the set of Stir Crazy (1980)

Directing Buck and the Preacher, led Poitier to start to move behind the camera. He mainly directed movies that starred himself, including A Warm December (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977). One of Poitier’s most notable works behind-the-camera didn’t star himself, however, which was the prison comedy Stir Crazy (1980) starring screen team and two of the most naturally funny people Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It was the first movie directed by a black director to gross over $100 million in North America. While Poitier will always be better remembered as an actor over a director, it may be safe to state that Poitier’s proof of box office success behind-the-camera may have paved the way for more black directors similar to what he had done for black actors previously.

With River Phoenix in Sneakers (1992)

Poitier’s screen work became less frequent with later on-screen work including Little Nikita (1988) and Sneakers (1992). He also worked in TV movies including playing Nelson Mandela in Mandela and de Klerk (1997) alongside Michael Caine which got both nominated for Emmy Awards. Poitier’s more sporadic film work during his later life can be partially contributed to his work in diplomacy and business. Poitier was appointed as the ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan from 1997 – 2007 and concurrently served as the ambassador of the Bahamas to UNESCO from 2002 – 2007. From 1995 – 2003, Poitier also served as a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.

With Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and Burt Lancaster at the March on Washington in 1963

Later in life, Poitier also frequently wrote books about his experiences. Throughout his life, Poitier also worked on advancing civil rights issues including taking place in the iconic 1963 March on Washington. Poitier also worked on spoken word records and worked occasionally on the stage. Poitier was married twice with his marriage before Shimkus being to Juanita Hardy from 1950 – 1965 which ended in divorce. Poitier has six children (four with Hardy and two with Shimkus). A number of his kids have appeared on-screen, with his younger daughter, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, being the most prominent. In the award department, outside of his Oscar Poitier has earned a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the BAFTA Fellowship, a competitive Golden Globe and their Cecil B. DeMille Award, a spoken record Grammy, a SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, an AFI Life Achievement Award, an honorary knighthood (KBE), and two Silver Bear Awards for “Best Actor.”

Poitier’s life and influence cannot be easily defined. He is certainly one of the most important movie stars in Hollywood’s long history because of what he did for pushing racial representation in the industry. Poitier proved that actors of all backgrounds have a place in Hollywood and in film history. He proved that an actor of any race can be popular with all audiences if they had the proper star material. Poitier wasn’t just a successful actor and director, but a great human being. Can you watch a Poitier movie without falling under his spell? Can audiences help but fall in love with him? I think his screen history will continue to shine on forever whether he is with us or not. I don’t think any of us can imagine movies without him.

~Virginia

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