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Legendary, Trailblazing Actor Sidney Poitier, Who Was The First Mainstream Black Movie Star, Dies at 94

Legendary, Trailblazing Actor Sidney Poitier, Who Was The First Mainstream Black Movie Star, Dies at 94

Sidney Poitier

PHOTO: Sidney Poitier, left, and daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier arrive at the Oscars, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Legendary artist Sir Sidney Poitier, a trailblazing actor and generous humanitarian, died on Jan. 6, 2021. He was 94. His death was confirmed by Clint Watson, the press secretary for Bahamian Prime Minister Hon. Philip Davis.

The first Black man to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, Poitier made history by becoming the first mainstream Black actor in Hollywood. In addition to his Oscar win for his iconic 1963 performance in “Lilies of the Field”, Poitier was the first Black actor to be a mainstream box-office draw, showing Black actors could play leading roles that weren’t seeped in derogatory stereotypes.

A Bahamian American, Poitier was born in Miami, Florida to tomato farmers and grew up in poverty on Cat Island in the island nation. According to PBS, Poitier fell in love with cinema after moving to the Bahamian capital of Nassau with his family in the late 1930s.

His father sent him to Miami to live with an older brother in hopes he would have better opportunities, but Poitier disliked the racism and segregation in the city and moved to New York when he was just 16 in pursuit of a better life.

Poitier said he didn’t initially want to become an actor. He saw an ad from the American Negro Theater seeking actors and went to audition, but said his thick Caribbean accent and inability to read caused him to be rejected. Poitier had quit school at age 12 to help his family make ends meet.


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He said the director advised him to become a dishwasher instead, which infuriated him. “As I walked to the bus, what humiliated me was the suggestion that all he could see in me was a dishwasher. If I submitted to him, I would be aiding him in making that perception a prophetic one,” Poitier told the AP.

“I got so pissed, I said, ‘I’m going to become an actor — whatever that is. I don’t want to be an actor, but I’ve got to become one to go back there and show him that I could be more than a dishwasher.’ That became my goal,” he continued.

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Poitier practiced sounding out words from the newspaper for months before auditioning again. He was rejected a second time but struck a deal to work as a janitor in exchange for acting classes.

The young aspiring actor’s first break came when he was cast as Harry Belafonte’s understudy at the company’s production of “Days of our Youth.” After filling in for Belafonte one night, Poitier was offered more parts in theater productions.

His star began swiftly rising in the 1950s and ’60s and he became Hollywood’s go-to Black actor after he made his film debut in “No Way Out.” Poitier went on to star in some of the most notable films of his time including “To Sir, With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and both the play and film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin In The Sun.”

Poitier became known for playing roles that challenged racial stereotypes and inequality with dignity and grace. “I made films when the only other Black on the lot was the shoeshine boy,” Poitier told Newsweek in a 1988 interview. “I was kind of the lone guy in town.”

“Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely even attempted to tell a Black person’s story,” the Associated Press reported after his death was announced by Bahamian news outlets.

It was important to Sidney Poitier to choose characters that aligned with his morals. “Almost all the job opportunities were reflective of the stereotypical perception of Blacks that had infected the whole consciousness of the country,” Poitier once said. “I came with an inability to do those things. It just wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.”

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While he was loved by many people – Black and white alike – and considered a national hero in the Bahamas, Poitier was also criticized by some Black people for being an Uncle Tom. Some felt Poitier sought to appease the white establishment and didn’t do enough to advance his community’s condition.

The bashing by his own race in America caused Poitier to retreat from public life and go home to the Bahamas for a while.

“I lived through people turning on me. It was painful for a couple years. … I was the most successful Black actor in the history of the country,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey in an interview. “The criticism I received was principally because I was usually the only Black in the movies. Personally, I thought that was a step (forward).”

Often the victim of racism himself, Sidney Poitier used his platform to tackle roles he felt represented his race well. He participated in the civil rights movement and vocalized his convictions about being stereotyped – which contrasted greatly with the narrative of his critics.

“There are many aspects to my personality that you can explore I think very constructively but you sit here and ask me such one-dimensional questions about a very tiny area of our lives,” Poitier once said to reporters during a press conference in the late 1960s. “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.”

Poitier later returned to public life as a writer and director and starred in more films. He received numerous accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

The Bahamian government has officially acknowledged the loss of Sidney Poitier one of its national heroes.

“Our whole Bahamas grieves and extends our deepest condolences to his family but even as we mourn, we celebrate the life of a great Bahamian,” Davis said during a press conference about Poitier’s death. “A cultural icon, an actor and film director, an entrepreneur, civil and human rights activist and latterly a diplomat. We admire the man not just because of his colossal achievements but because of who he was.”

Poitier was married twice, first to Juanita Hardy, then to Joanna Shimkus. He had six daughters, four with Hardy and two with Shimkus. He is survived by Shimkus and all of his children.

PHOTO: Sidney Poitier, left, and daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier arrive at the Oscars, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)