Goodbye Sidney Poitier Passing of first Black person who won an Oscar | Sunday Observer

Goodbye Sidney Poitier Passing of first Black person who won an Oscar

23 January, 2022

Sidney Poitier, the first Black person to win a best actor Oscar, died last week at the age of 94. He gave a string of groundbreaking performances on screen in the 1950s and 60s, and they paved the way for generations of Black film stars while helping combat social prejudice. The Black American is regarded as a natural film star who quietly pioneered a revolution.

Originally from Bahamas, his death was announced on Friday by Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas, Fred Mitchell. The Bahamas Deputy Prime Minister, Chester Cooper, said he was “conflicted with great sadness and a sense of celebration when I learned of the passing of Sir Sidney Poitier”.

He added: “Sadness that he would no longer be here to tell him how much he means to us, but celebration that he did so much to show the world that those from the humblest beginnings can change the world and that we gave him his flowers while he was with us.

“We have lost an icon. A hero, a mentor, a fighter, a national treasure.”

Celebrities’ condolences

Hollywood figures also paid tribute to Poitier’s achievements. Oprah Winfrey posted a photo of herself with Poitier, adding: “The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasure him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish.”

Actor and director Tyler Perry wrote: “The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten.”

Whoopi Goldberg wrote: “If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high. To Sir… with Love. Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars.” Westworld star Jeffrey Wright called him “a landmark actor. One of a kind. What a beautiful, gracious, warm, genuinely regal man. RIP, Sir. With love.”

Actor Viola Davis added: “No words can describe how your work radically shifted my life. The dignity, normalcy, strength, excellence and sheer electricity you brought to your roles showed us that we, as Black folks, mattered!!!”

Questlove, musician and director of Summer of Soul, wrote: “King Sidney. One of the greatest actors of his generation.” Star Trek actor George Takei paid tribute to “a trailblazer who will be mourned by so many for whom he opened the very doors of Hollywood.”

Life beginning

Poitier was born in Miami, US, in 1927 while his Bahamian parents were visiting Miami to sell tomatoes in 1927. After his parents came back to Bahamas, he grew up in the Bahamas which was then a British colony. However, in 1942, at the age of 15 he returned to the US. Yet, there he couldn’t find a suitable job. He worked at a series of low-paid jobs before briefly serving in the Army during the Second World War.

At this time he was in a confused state and couldn’t find his true vocation. One day he participated in an audition for the high-profile American Negro Theatre, based in Harlem. He was rejected from it, but he worked hard to improve his acting skills – and to lose his Bahamian accent. After being allowed to attend classes, Poitier stepped in when Belafonte, then a star student, was unable to perform. At this time he was spotted by a Broadway director, Poitier subsequently carved out a nascent career in the Black theatre circuit of the period.

Next, Poitier secured his first significant film role, in the 1950 film noir ‘No Way Out’, in which he played a hospital doctor whose racist patient (played by Richard Widmark) starts a race riot. With its overt depiction of racial conflict, ‘No Way Out’ was considered too controversial to be shown in Southern states, but established Poitier’s trademark persona as sensitive, forbearing figure, more intelligent than the white characters around him, according to critic Andrew Pulver who wrote to Guardian on January 7, 2022.

Breakthrough movies

In 1955, Poitier’s breakthrough role came back in the US, with another social comment picture: Blackboard Jungle in which he played a rebellious high-school student. The film was a hit, with its use of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ ensuring a large teenage audience; in the UK it inspired the infamous ‘Elephant and Castle teddy boy riot of 1956’.

There are two films which lifted Poitier to international level. They are ‘The Defiant Ones’ of which he secured a groundbreaking Oscar nomination as the best actor, and ‘Lilies of the Field’ of which he won his Oscar award for the best actor. The first one was a message movie by Stanley Kramer about social cooperation in which he played a convict who escapes in the deep South while shackling to Tony Curtis - both Curtis and Poitier were nominated for the best actor, and finally they lost to David Niven for Separate Tables. The later one, ‘Lilies of the Field’, was an earnest drama where he played a handyman who helped a group of German nuns build a chapel in the Arizona desert.

National consciousness

Poitier was the first black male star to engage the American national consciousness at a time when the prevailing image of a film star was still that of someone white. In a 1967 interview, Poitier said that when he first began appearing in films, “the kind of Negro played on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling butlers, really misfits. This was the background when I came along 20 years ago and I chose not to be a party to the stereotyping … I want people to feel when they leave the theatre that life and human beings are worthwhile. That is my only philosophy about the pictures I do … I have four children … They go to movies all the time but they rarely see themselves reflected there.”

Critical acclaim

According to critics, Poitier balanced success with a sense of duty to choose projects that tackled bigotry and stereotypes, including his 1967 classics “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night.” He did this at a time of racial tension in America in the 1950s and 1960s.

The following is how Peter Bradshaw started his feature article on Poitier for the Guardian, published on January 7, 2022:

“For postwar America, Sidney Poitier became something like the Black Cary Grant: a strikingly handsome and well-spoken Bahamian-American actor. He was a natural film star who projected passion, yet tempered by a kind of refinement and restraint that white moviegoers found very reassuring. Poitier was graceful, manly, self-possessed, with an innate dignity and a tremendous screen presence. He also had a beautiful, melodious voice – the result of his childhood spent in the Bahamas, and then struggling early years in New York, trying to make it as an actor and privately studying the voices of mellifluous white radio announcers. He was a traditional, classical actor in many ways, following in the footsteps of Paul Robeson and Canada Lee, but eminently castable in a new generation of modern roles.”

Significant events

Poitier recently won a BFI poll for the best ever performance by a black actor for his role as Virgil Tibbs in Norman Jewison’s ‘In the Heat of the Night’. In 1997, he took up a ceremonial post as Bahamian ambassador to Japan. But before appointing as Bahamas ambassador to Japan in 1997, he was knighted in 1974 (due to his Bahamian citizenship). And in 2009, he was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom - the country’s highest civilian honour - by Barack Obama.

Poitier was married to his second wife Joanna since 1976, and had two children. His first marriage was with Juanita Hardy, which ended in 1965. They had been together since 1950 and had four children. From those marriages, he has numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.

According to Peter Bradshow, Poitier created a space for African American acting that made possible the careers of Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Terrence Howard, and many more. The richness, strength and immediacy of his performances in ‘Edge of the City’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ make him a screen pioneer and a Hollywood legend. So, end of Sidney Poitier’s life is definitely an end of an era.