The first black actor to win a best-actor Oscar, and the first to become America’s top box-office draw, Poitier leaves behind a singular legacy.
BY GARY SUSMAN
JANUARY 7, 2022
“As I see myself, I’m just the average Joe Blow Negro,” Sidney Poitier told The New York Times in 1959. “But as the cats say in my area, I’m out there wailing for us all.” That tension, between trying to be an ordinary man and having to serve as a racial exemplar, defined the life of Poitier, who died Thursday at the age of 94. News of his death was announced by Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bahamas, where Poitier’s family hailed from, and reported first by Bahamian news sources.
The first black actor to win a best-actor Oscar, and the first to become America’s top box-office draw, Poitier also spent two lonely decades as Hollywood’s only black leading man. He opened doors for others that he could hardly pass through himself, ever conscious of his need to set a lofty example.
Poitier was born in 1927, in Miami, the youngest of seven children to a pair of Bahamian tomato farmers. Raised in poverty on the tiny town of Cat Island in the Bahamas, he would enjoy dual citizenship due to his birth on Floridian soil. He took advantage of that status at age 15, moving in with an older brother in Miami, but it was there that he encountered systemic racism and Jim Crow segregation for the first time. Within months, he was making his way north to New York. He continued to work menial jobs there while teaching himself to improve his reading and diction (learning from newspapers and radio announcers), two skills that he would make the most of when he broke into acting.
Poitier made his Broadway debut in 1946 in an American Negro Theatre production of Lysistrata, but within four years, he was screen-testing for Twentieth Century Fox. He made his debut in 1950 in the lead role in No Way Out, playing a doctor who must prove himself to Richard Widmark’s wounded bigot. It was a role that would typify Poitier’s career for more than a decade: the exceptional black man who teaches white people, well, not exactly tolerance, but at least the notion that “certain” black people were worthy of respect.
His career took off with 1955’s hit Blackboard Jungle, in which he played the most redeemable and charismatic of the gang of slum toughs taught by Glenn Ford’s idealistic high-school teacher. (The ever youthful-looking Poitier was 28.) He won an Oscar nomination for best actor for 1958’s The Defiant Ones, a racial parable in which chain-gang escapees Poitier and Tony Curtis are shackled together and forced to rely on each other for survival, becoming the first African-American performer nominated for the Oscar’s top acting prize. He wouldn’t win it for a few more years; in the meantime, he originated the role of Walter Lee Younger in the 1959 Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark A Raisin in the Sun and went on to reprise the role on film.
In 1963, he starred in Lilies of the Field, another racial parable about a handyman who helps a group of German-speaking nuns build a chapel in the American southwest. This time, everyone knew it was Poitier’s turn to win best actor. (His friend Paul Newman, nominated that year for Hud, stayed home from the ceremony and announced he was rooting for Poitier.) Sure enough, Poitier became the first African-American to win best actor—and the last for nearly four decades. It was a proud but bittersweet moment. Nothing had changed, either for Hollywood or for himself (he did not yet have another gig lined up ). As Poitier recalled years later, “I knew that we hadn't ‘overcome’ because I was still the only one.”
Indeed, Poitier’s own struggle was far from over. Even black viewers found his characters problematic. They were so saintly that they were sexless; they seemed to lack the confident masculinity and swagger permitted to white leading men. Even as Poitier refused to play victims, he was being slurred as an Uncle Tom. (The rap was unfair; even as far back as 1957’s antebellum drama Band of Angels, a full decade before In the Heat of the Night, a heroic Poitier was shown beating an evil plantation owner in order to protect a black woman from a sexual assault.)
Nonetheless, Poitier hit a career peak in 1967, releasing three of his most iconic movies and becoming the year’s top box-office draw. He was the hip London schoolteacher reforming a classroom full of white delinquents (a neat reversal of his Blackboard Jungle role) in To Sir, with Love; and he was the impossibly perfect fiancé brought home to meet white prospective in-laws Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to DInner.
Most important, he was big-city detective Virgil Tibbs, who helps Rod Steiger’s racist Mississippi sheriff solve a small-town murder in In the Heat of the Night. Poitier had literally risked his life to make the film—sleeping with a gun under his pillow during the film’s Tennessee shoot while white thugs raged outside his motel—and the result was more than just a box-office smash and the Oscar-winning best picture of 1968; the scene where a racist plantation owner strikes Tibbs across the face—and Tibbs strikes him right back—became known as “the slap heard ’round the world.” There was no questioning Tibbs’s masculinity or lack of deference. With a single thwack, Poitier smacked open the door that led to a decade of macho blaxploitation heroes and, eventually, to more fully rounded and recognizably human roles for black actors.
Poitier went on to reprise the role of Tibbs in two undistinguished sequels, but even as he was tiring of being a moral exemplar, he was branching out artistically. He became a director with the 1972 western Buck and the Preacher, in which he co-starred with Harry Belafonte, a friend and colleague since their American Negro Theatre days. He directed and starred in some comedies with Bill Cosby, notably 1974’s cult hit Uptown Saturday Night. He directed the 1980 hit Stir Crazy, the most beloved of the series of buddy comedies that co-starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. He spent 11 years offscreen, returning to film in the 1988 thrillers Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita when he was 61 years old and could finally be regarded safely as a beloved institution who’d been missed during his long absence from acting. (“I wanted and needed to do other things,” he explained of his sabbatical from performing. “I truly did not miss it.”)
In his later years, he seemed to act only when someone of truly august presence was needed, say, to play Thurgood Marshall (in the 1991 TV mini-series Separate but Equal) or Nelson Mandela (in the 1997 TV movie Mandela and de Klerk). He branched out further, into writing (three memoirs, and even a novel) and diplomacy (serving as the Bahamian ambassador to Japan since 1997). He spent time with his daughters (he had six from his two marriages).
Always modest about his own achievements (when asked by Vanity Fair in 2007 what his greatest accomplishment was, he demurred, “I leave that judgment to others and to history”), Poitier enjoyed a vindication of sorts at the Academy Awards in 2002, 38 years after his Lilies of the Field victory. That night, he won an honorary Oscar for his lifetime contribution to the cinema; in that same broadcast, Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win best actress (for Monster’s Ball), and Denzel Washington became the first African-American man since Poitier to win best actor. Washington, who’d long played a series of Poitier-like roles—dignified and a little stiff—won for Training Day, playing a macho, gleeful, violent villain, the kind of role Poitier and the early-career Washington would have never played.
After all, being Sidney Poitier was always a responsibility of nearly unbearable weight. Even after his reputation was long secure, when he was directing and starring in light comedies, he felt the burden. Discussing the 1992 caper Sneakers, an ensemble piece where he didn’t even have to carry the picture, much less the perception that he was serving as a representative for all African-Americans, he said, “I have a responsibility to at least prove myself worthy of that perception. I try in my work to have a certain quality, a certain texture to what I say as an artist and how I say it. Because this film is without great weight doesn’t mean I just come in and wing it for 10 weeks. However I am perceived, I accept it as a challenge. So there will be no time in my career, such as is left of it, that I will just lay back and cool it and coast. I can’t do that.”
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