“History passes the final judgment.” – Sidney Poitier
Bahamian-American actor and filmmaker Sidney Poitier is recognised as one of the all-time greats in the film industry. He was the first Black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor and remains the oldest living and earliest surviving recipient of the prestigious accolade. On his 94th birthday, we revisit Sidney Poitier’s distinguished career as a celebration of his contribution to the world of cinema.
Born in Miami in 1927, Poitier was the youngest of seven children whose parents worked as farmers in the Bahamas. He grew up there but was unexpectedly born in the US when his parents were visiting for the weekend, which granted him American citizenship. Poitier was born two months prematurely, forcing his family to stay in Miami for three more months until the doctors declared the baby safe. He returned to Miami at the age of 15 to stay with his brother’s family because he faced troubling circumstances back home. Poitier eventually moved to New York a year later, where he worked as a dishwasher and educated himself, thanks to the help of a colleague who taught him how to read the newspaper. He also had a short stint in the US Army during the Second World War; Poitier lied about his age and got assigned to a psychiatric facility but quickly became disillusioned with the hospital’s mistreatment of its patients.
After being discharged by the doctor-in-charge in 1944 who sympathised with his conflict, Poitier joined the American Negro Theatre, but the audiences rejected him because he was tone-deaf. Focused on improving his skills as a performing artist, Poitier made a deal with the theatre that he would work as a janitor in exchange for acting lessons. He took to the stage again and got the opportunity to appear in a Broadway production of Lysistrata, following which he received another role in the play Anna Lucasta. Poitier made his film debut in 1950 in No Way Out, earning recognition and more lucrative offers than most Black actors got at that time. Although he followed up with the 1951 film Cry, the Beloved Country, his breakthrough role came in 1955 when he dazzled audiences as a talented/tormented student in Blackboard Jungle.
The burgeoning actor kept accomplishing more significant goals, earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones where he starred alongside Tony Curtis. They played the role of two prisoners who are chained to each other and forced to overcome their differences together after they make their escape. Poitier became the first Black male actor to be nominated for that honour, also winning a prize from the British Film Academy Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear Award. The Defiant Ones was a huge critical and commercial success that undoubtedly put Poitier on the map for good. He continued to deliver powerhouse performances in the musical Porgy and Bess and the 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun. Poitier would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964 for his work in Lilies of the Field, which transformed him into a superstar, but he had his concerns about the Academy using him as a token to feel better about their own misgivings.
The commercial peak of his career would soon follow, with acclaimed performances in hit films like In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love. The versatility he showed while playing these very different roles proved that Poitier was at the top of his game and was undoubtedly one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood during that period. He was also criticised by some for allowing himself to pigeonholed into racial stereotypes, devoid of flawed personalities and sexual agency, Poitier was aware of these issues and understood the responsibility he had as the only major Black actor in the industry. Upset by a scathing New York Times article, he decided to take a hiatus from Hollywood and reflect on his situation in the Bahamas.
Turning to the art of filmmaking, Poitier made his directorial debut in the western Buck and the Preacher, where he co-starred with his friend Harry Belafonte. Over the course of his career, he would collaborate with Bill Cosby on a number of occasions starting with Uptown Saturday Night. The apotheosis of his directorial work was the 1980 comedy Stir Crazy which starred Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor as a film writer and an actor (respectively), who get framed for a bank robbery that they did not commit. Their on-screen chemistry ensured that the film was a hit, grossing over $100 million and making Poitier the first Black filmmaker to achieve that milestone. As an overdue acknowledgement of his enormous legacy, Poitier was awarded the Honorary Academy Award in 2001.
Poitier has had an outstanding career outside of performing arts as well, serving on the board of directors of Disney for a few years. He was also appointed ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan, an impressive addition to his already astounding achievements. In many ways, Poitier led by example and paved the way for younger Black artists to demand the attention they had not been granted previously. After all these years, the legendary actor remains an inspiration for many aspiring actors who are constantly trying to navigate the prejudices of the industry and make it big. Forever humble, Poitier said in an interview: “I’d like to say only that I have been very lucky in the picture business. I’ve been working with a degree of consistency compared to a lot of other actors, I never stopped.” Despite his insistence, Sidney Poitier will always be remembered as one of the most important figures of 20th century Hollywood.