Trailblazing Hollywood icon Sidney Poitier, the first Black male performer to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, died on Thursday. He was 94.
The Bahamian-American actor’s demise was announced by the Bahamian Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell on Friday.
Poitier’s acting roles and the films he directed paved the path for generations of Black actors and directors. He received a string of accolades and awards over a career that spanned seven decades. These include two more Oscar nominations, two Primetime Emmy Awards nominations and six BAFTA nominations.
Poitier also received an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1974 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States government in 2009.
He was born Sidney L Poitier on February 20, 1927. After appearances in stage productions, Poitier drew good notices for his role in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s No Way Out in 1950. He played an African American doctor who confronts racism in a small town. Poitier would go on to be that rare thing in Hollywood – a Black leading man.
Richard Brooks’s coming-of-age drama Blackboard Jungle (1955) saw Poitier in the key role of a troubled but talented student at a multi-racial school.
In Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), a Black and a White convict escape while being shackled together and must learn to co-exist until they can free themselves. Sidney Poitier starred alongside Tony Curtis in the movie. Both actors were nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars. Poitier won the top acting prize at the Berlin Film Festival for his performance.
A Raisin in the Sun (1961), based on the landmark play by Lorraine Hansberry, starred Poitier as the ambitious member of a Black family trying to set up a new business. Poitier finally won the Best Actor Oscar for Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field (1963). Poitier played a handyman who helps a group of German nuns build a new chapel.
British director James Clavell’s To Sir, With Love (1967) is considered a landmark film in Poitier’s career. He played Mark Thackeray, a teacher who restores order at a school in London filled with rebellious students.
The year 1967 was crucial for Poitier as well as the representation of Black lives in the movies. Norman Jewison’s In The Heat of the Night starred Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a Black police detective who investigates a murder in a small town. The film inspired two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) and The Organization (1971).
Poitier reunited with Stanley Kramer for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, also in 1967. The movie boldly explored interracial marriage through the prism of comedy. Poitier and Katharine Houghton play a married couple who shock and challenge her parents (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy).
In 1972, Poitier directed his first movie, Buck and the Preacher. He cast mostly Black actors in the American Western. The film is regarded as an allegory for the American Civil Rights movement, of which Poitier was an outspoken advocate.
His films as director include Let’s Do It Again (1975), a comedy about boxers who throw a match to raise money for a cause.
Poitier’s comedy Stir Crazy (1980) featured Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder as friends who are framed in a bank robbery and sentenced to prison. The movie was the first by a Black director to make more than $100 million at the box office.
Roger Spottiswoode’s Shoot to Kill (1988) marked Poitier’s return as an actor after 11 years. Poitier played a federal agent who teams up with a tracker to pursue a murderer.
Poitier’s subsequent acting projects included the movie The Jackal (1997) and the television productions Separate But Equal (1991) and Mandela and De Klerk (1997).
When Denzel Washington became only the second Black performer to win a Best Actor Oscar for Training Day (2001), he dedicated the award to Sidney Poitier, who was given an Honorary Academy Award at the same event. “I’ll always be following in your footsteps,” Washington told Poitier.