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Film

Watch Sidney Poitier discuss his view on civil rights

@Russellisation

An iconic American actor, civil rights activist and filmmaker, the late Sidney Poitier was one of the very first actors to break down the racial barriers of Hollywood, battling for higher standards for black actors across the industry. As the first-ever black recipient of the Best Actor Academy Award, Poitier was a pioneer of civil rights, becoming an icon of the movement who worked alongside Martin Luther King to form a powerful voice in the industry. 

Growing up in the Bahamas, Poitier moved to Florida at the age of 15 where he would start his film career, joining a local theatre before he starred in Blackboard Jungle in 1955, a breakthrough role for the burgeoning actor. Itself a comment on civil rights in America, the film struck a chord with critics and audiences, with the opportunity opening the door for Sidney Poitier to become a dominant figure in American cinema. 

In the fight for racial civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s, Poitier became a popular public figure, speaking out for equality alongside the baptist minister and social rights activist, Martin Luther King (MLK). A believer in non-violent approaches to societal change, Poitier preferred MLK over the likes of Rap Brown and Malcolm X, stating in an old interview: “For some years now I’ve worked raising funds for Dr. King because I believe, still, very strongly in his non-violent philosophy”. 

Clearly stating his stance on the drive for civil rights, Poitier noted: “I am, by definition, in opposition to violence, particularly violence for violence sake,” therefore preferring MLK’s peaceful approach to change, using marches, boycott’s and social activism to attract the attention of the general public and higher powers. As an activist and outspoken individual, Poitier also helped to drive change through his careful choice of films with In the Heat of the Night still standing as a compelling drama that deconstructs the prejudiced western attitudes towards black people. 

Sidney Poitier: The man who changed the face of Hollywood forever

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Whilst Sidney Poitier was open to discussing how such attitudes could be changed in contemporary society, he was also well aware of the constant discourse that was aimed at him as a black actor. Such came out when the actor was bombarded with questions as to his own opinions toward issues of civil rights, to which Poitier replies, “I would like to ask you a question…why is it that you guys are hounds for bad news?”. 

Continuing in his tirade against the media, the actor added: “It seems to me that at this moment, this day you could ask me many questions about many positive and wonderful things that are happening in this country, but we gather here to pay court to sensationalism. We gather here to pay court to negativism”. Attacking the press for their constant questions about the state of the contemporary civil rights movement, rather than more constructive questions pertaining to the actor’s complicated life, Poitier’s comments are particularly apt. 

The late actor is remembered as one of America’s most important voices of civil rights during one of the country’s most turbulent eras, demanding a better standard for working black actors. A true pioneer and influential voice, Poitier concluded his speech against the press by stating: “You ask me questions that fall continually within the ‘negro-ness’ of my life…I am artist, man, American, contemporary, I am an awful lot of things so I wish you would pay me the respect due and not simply ask me about those things”. 

See the clip, below.