Friday, January 7, 2022

To Sir Sidney Poitier, with Love

The impact of Sidney Poitier on film history cannot be overestimated. Throughout his career he played Black characters who were not stereotypes. He was not only the first Black actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor, but he was the first major Black movie star. When he began directing movies in the Seventies, he was one of the few Black men to do so. He was active in the civil rights movement and took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28 1963. Very few, if any, have done as much as Sidney Poitier did to change the film industry and make it more inclusive. Sadly, Sir Sidney Poitier died yesterday, January 6 2022, at the age of 94.

Sidney Poitier was born on February 20 1927 in Miami, Florida to Bahamian farmers who would sell their produce there. He was born two months premature and his birth was unexpected for that reason. He spent the first ten years of his life on Cat Island, Bahamas. His family then moved to Nassau, Bahamas. He was fifteen yeas old when he was sent to Miami to live with his brother's family. He was sixteen years old when he moved to New York City and worked as a dishwasher, a ditch digger, a waterfront labourer, and a delivery man. During World War II Mr. Poitier enlisted in the United States Army by lying about his age. He served in a Veteran's Administration hospital in Northport, New York, where he was to help psychiatric patients. Sidney Poitier was offended by the cruel treatment that the patients received from many of the staff. After ten months he could no longer take seeing the patients abused and he pretended to be mentally disturbed in order to get out of the Army. Fortunately the psychiatrist who examined him proved to be sympathetic when Mr. Poitier explained his plight, and after five weeks gave him a release on the grounds of being mentally unfit.

It was in The Amsterdam News that Sidney Poitier read that the American Negro Theatre was seeking actors. Because he still had a thick West Indian accent, his first audition did not go well. Mr. Poitier then bought a radio and practised his English while listening to the announcers. A fellow co-worker helped him with his English. Even after all this work, he was only able to win a place at the American Negro Theatre after volunteering to work as a janitor for free.

His big break came when Harry Belafonte failed to show up at a rehearsal that was attended by a Broadway producer. The producer took notice of Mr. Poitier and he was cast in an all-Black production of Lysistrata on Broadway in 1946. He was then cast in a Broadway production of Anna Lucasta in 1947. Sidney Poitier's work on stage led to an offer from Darryl F. Zanuck to work in the film No Way Out (1950). In the film he played a Black doctor who must treat a white racist criminal (Richard Widmark). Over the next few years he appeared in the films Cry, the Beloved County (1951), Red Ball Express (1952), and Go Man Go (1954). His breakout role came with The Blackboard Jungle (1955), playing a rebellious high school student. He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in Leading Role for The Defiant Ones (1958). Over the next few years he also appeared in the films Good-Bye, My Lady (1956), Edge of the City (1957), Something of Value (1957), Band of Angles (1957), The Mark of the Hawk (1957), Virgin Island (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), and All the Young Men (1960). Sidney Poitier appeared on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun. He made his television debut in 1952 in an episode of CBS Television Workshop. During the Fifties he guest starred on such shows as Omnibus, Kraft Television Theatre, and The Philco Television Playhouse.

Sidney Poitier began the Sixties with the film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun in 1961. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lillie in the Field (1963). In 1967 he was the highest grossing movie star, appearing the movies To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). He also appeared in the movies Paris Blues (1961), Pressure Point (1962), The Long Ships (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Bedford Incident (1965), The Slender Thread (1965), A Patch of Blue (195), Duel at Diablo (1966), For Love of Ivy (1968), The Lost Man (1969), and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970). He appeared ion Broadway in Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights in 1970.

In the Seventies Sidney Poitier appeared in the films Brother John (1971), The Organization (1971), Buck and the Preacher (1972), A Warm December (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), The Wilby Conspiracy (1975), Let's Do It Again (1975), and A Piece of the Action (1977). Mr. Poitier made his directorial debut in 1972 with Buck and the Preacher. In the Seventies he directed the films A Warm December (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let's Do It Again (1975), A Piece of the Action (1977), and Stir Crazy (1980).

In the Eighties Sidney Poitier starred in the movies Shoot to Kill (1988) and Little Nikita (1988). He directed the films Hanky Panky (1982), Fast Forward (1985), and Ghost Dad (1990). In the Nineties Mr. Poitier appeared on television in the mini-series Separate But Equal and Children of the Dust. He appeared in the TV movies To Sir, with Love II; Mandela and de Klerk; Free of Eden; David and Lisa; and The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn. He appeared in the movies Sneakers (1992) and The Jackal (1997). In 2001 he appeared in the The Last Brickmaker in America.

Sidney Poitier truly broke barriers in film. He was both the first Black actor and the first Bahamian actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He was also the first Black actor to win a BAFTA Award. Many of the films he made dealt with race, and he never played stereotypical roles. He was the first major Black movie star and as a result not only paved the way for other black actors, but helped increased diversity in Hollywood as well. When he began his directorial career in the Seventies, he was one of the few Black directors around.

In interviews Sidney Poitier often credited his success to simply being in the right place at the right time, but it seems likely most of it was due to his talent. Throughout his career he played a variety of roles. He played a Black doctor in No Way Out. In The Defiant Ones he played a Black convict chained to a white convict who have just escaped prison. He was both the teacher Mark Thackeray in To Sir, with Love and the police detective Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night. Over the years he played everything from handyman Homer Smith in Lilies in the Field to widower Dr. Matt Younger in A Warm December. What is more, he also played all of these roles well. He was also a talented director, directing such classic films as Buck and the Preacher, A Warm December, Uptown Saturday night, and Stir Crazy.

Sidney Poitier was also an activist and took part in the civil rights movement. Besides the March to Washington, he also took part in the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 and the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. From 1997 to 2007 he was the Bahamian ambassador to Japan. He as the Bahamian ambassador to UNESCO from 2002 to 2007.

Over the years Sidney Poitier received many honours. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1974. In 2009 In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. In 1995 he received the Kennedy Center Honour. Over the years he won many awards,including an Oscar for Best Actor and an Honorary Oscar, A BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor and a BAFTA Academy Fellowship, and yet others. The many honours bestowed upon Sidney Poitier reflect his importance in the history of film and his talent as an actor. It was that talent that allowed him to break through barriers.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

Very interesting to read of Sidney Poitier's experience with the psychiatric unit in the army. It somewhat parallels the film Pressure Point, 1962 where Poitier's psychiatrist treats neo-Nazi Bobby Darrin. The variety of roles played by the actor is astounding and impressive.