Black Artist Spotlight: Sidney Poitier

On January 6th, 2022 legendary actor Sidney Poitier passed away at the age of 94. The world mourned his death sharing on social media what Poitier’s accomplishments meant to them. One of the accomplishments being Poitier’s Oscar win in 1964 which made him the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for best actor. With his recent passing, history making career, and the part he played in the previous Black artist spotlight of Lorraine Hansberry it only makes sense that he is today’s spotlight.

Photo: Sam Falk/The New York Times

Sidney Poitier’s acting career began when he moved to New York City after his short stint in the U.S. Army. He applied to the American Negro Theater but because of his heavy Bahamian accent was denied. Poitier worked on his American English accent by listening to radio and six months later he reapplied to the theater, because his accent wasn’t all the way there the theater would accept him into their acting school under one condition, he would be their janitor without pay. His opportunity to get on stage came when another actor at the theater, Harry Belafonte, couldn’t be there. So, Poitier filled in for Belafonte in their production of Days of Our Youth. Then, in 1946 Poitier made his Broadway debut in Lysistrata. Soon came the Hollywood career that helped change the way African-Americans were portrayed on screen.

Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (1950)

Poitier’s film debut came in 1950 with his role as a doctor in No Way Out. He continued to take roles that were unlike the usual racial stereotypical roles that African-American actors were given. The next role was in Cry, the Beloved Country, an adaptation of a novel set in South Africa during the apartheid. In 1955 a career breakthrough happened with the popular movie Blackboard Jungle which started a series of more breakthroughs with more popular films that broke the mold like 1957’s Edge of the City. The following year Poitier made history becoming the first African-American actor to get an Academy Award nod for best actor for his role in The Defiant Ones.

Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958).
Photo: IMDB

Poitier continued to perform on Broadway. In 1959, he performed in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The same year he played the disabled Porgy in the musical Porgy & Bess alongside Dorothy Dandridge. For his performance in Porgy & Bess Poitier received a Golden Globe nod for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Poitier received another Golden Globe nod the following year for the reprisal of his role as Walter Lee Younger in the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun.

Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in Porgy & Bess (1959).

Hollywood would forever be changed when Poitier won the Oscar for his role in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field making him the second Black performer to win an Academy Award (the first being Hattie McDaniel). Poitier continued to open doors for other Black actors who’d come after him when in 1967 Poitier starred in 3 different movies Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. All 3 of these films dealt with the division of race during the civil rights movement and all three were successful.

Photo: Getty

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Poitier played the fiancé of a white woman (Katharine Houghton) who brings him to dinner to meet her liberal parents. This film had a huge impact on the audience and in Hollywood when it came to how interracial relationships were looked at in society and on the big screen.

Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

In 1972, Poitier made his debut as a director with the western Buck and the Preacher in which he also starred in with Ruby Dee and Harry Belafonte. He directed another film where he and Belafonte starred in together along with Bill Cosby, the 1974 comedy, Uptown Saturday Night which was a series. The next film in the series were Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action, Poitier directed both of those as well. He didn’t act in the box office hit Stir Crazy which he directed in 1980. Stir Crazy was the highest grossing film by a Black director for several years and starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby in Uptown Saturday Night (1974).

After about 10 years, Poitier returned to acting starring in Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita then Sneakers and Jackal. In 2001 was Poitier’s final role in the TV movie The Last Brickmaker in America. In 2002 he received an honorary Oscar and later on in the ceremony Denzel Washington became the second Black actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Training Day after Poitier’s Academy Award win in 1963. In Washington’s speech he said, “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I would rather do, sir.”

In 2009, Poitier recieved the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Poitier has also written several books throughout the years. He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for the audio version of his book The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography.

Sidney Poitier’s many performances on stage and on screen made him a legend and pioneer that created a pathway for brilliant actors that have then made the pathway even longer for the next generations like Denzel Washington. He continues to inspire us today in 2022.


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