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Sidney Poitier opened doors.
No other Black actor in midcentury Hollywood did more to shift perceptions, expanding representation beyond the degrading stereotypes that had long prevailed. His smolderingly charismatic screen presence provided a non-militant but arguably no less forceful argument for Black personhood and humanity, just as the civil rights movement was starting to gain traction.
Poitier, whose death at 94 was confirmed Friday, became the first Black performer to win a best actor Oscar for his role as an itinerant handyman who helps a flock of Central European nuns build a chapel for the impoverished Mexican American townsfolk of an Arizona desert farming community in 1963’s Lilies of the Field.
The inherent saintliness of that role and others played by Poitier prompted some Black cultural commentators to criticize the actor for portraying characters that reassured rather than challenged the white hegemony that marginalized their existence.
But representation for any minority is inevitably an incremental process, and the compassion, the proud self-possession, the moral fortitude, even the forgiveness in the face of racial injustice shown by Poitier’s legacy characters made his work a key foundational building block for more dimensional treatment of Black characters in Hollywood.
Poitier’s only predecessor among Oscar winners was Hattie McDaniel, who won best supporting actress as the devoted house servant Mammy in Gone With the Wind, a character widely derided as the perpetuation of the restrictive domestic stereotype. The advancement in the 24 years that separated their wins — embodied with such resolute strength of character by Poitier — is incontestable.
My own formative impressions of Poitier and his pivotal importance in the rocky history of Hollywood representation were formed above all by one film. As a kid growing up Catholic in a white Australia that was only beginning to reckon with its brutal crimes against the country’s Indigenous peoples, watching Lilies of the Field on TV hit me with an emotional force that still summons tears when the movie turns up on TCM.
But so too, perhaps on a more subliminal level, did my first encounters with films like No Way Out, Cry the Beloved Country, In the Heat of the Night and — a personal sentimental favorite — To Sir, With Love, in which Poitier played, respectively, a doctor, a South African clergyman, a Philadelphia detective and a teacher determined to make a difference in a tough London high school.
Poitier led by example, choosing parts that significantly broadened the view of professional roles Black men could fill in an intolerant white society, often confronting virulent racism with a contained anger that spoke volumes. That he brought to the equation matinee-idol looks, ineffable elegance, a velvety speaking voice and piercing intelligence made him all the more persuasive an advocate for awareness and change.
The film that made him a star and earned him his first Oscar nomination was 1958’s The Defiant Ones, in which he played an escaped prisoner in the American South, inconveniently shackled to Tony Curtis’ white racist fellow convict — because “the warden had a sense of humor.”
Poitier’s performance as Walter Lee Younger in the 1961 screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s now-classic play about a Black family looking to improve their circumstances in the changing residential landscape of south Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun, was another milestone. That drama brought candor and emotional insight to its reflections on housing discrimination and the complexities of assimilation, even within one African American family.
In 1965’s A Patch of Blue, he played an educated man whose friendship with Elizabeth Hartman’s illiterate, blind 18-year-old encounters hostility in a racially divided America.
One of the biggest eye-openers of Poitier’s landmark 1960s films was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In the 1967 Stanley Kramer drama, he again played a doctor, this time bumping up not against unveiled hatred but the more latent racism stirred up when his white fiancée invites him home to meet her wealthy liberal parents — played by longtime screen partners who were an institution of worldly white Hollywood, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
The film’s depiction of an interracial relationship was groundbreaking at a time when it was still illegal in many U.S. states, and in capturing the resistance of educated, ostensibly open-minded parents — both white and Black — to the central union, it forced many people to re-examine their own attitudes toward questions of race and equality.
The back-to-back commercial successes of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, With Love made Poitier the top box-office star of 1968, an achievement unthinkable a decade earlier.
While his legacy as a game-changing representational force was later shared by others like Cicely Tyson and Harry Belafonte, Poitier, more than any other Black actor, led the charge. His journey from a kid on a tomato farm in the Bahamas to a beloved Hollywood elder statesman, expanding into directing with comedies like Uptown Saturday Night and Stir Crazy, was unparalleled. There’ll never be another like him.
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