Elegance, poise, dignity are just a few words that come to mind when one thinks about legendary actor Sidney Poitier. The stage and screen actor has a presence that can be described as an adjective. “That guy has a very Poitier style about him”. But it’s not just his acting or his ability to exude class that makes him legendary. It’s how he chose to be one of the world’s most celebrated actors, on his own terms. Early in his career, Poitier had the presence of mind to make sure he didn’t take just any role. Poitier once told his agent Martin Baum, “Someday, Black people are gonna play something more than men’s room attendants, and I want to be there when that happens.”
As a young boy, Poitier got into trouble from time to time, growing up in the Bahamas, from time to time. As a result, Poitier’s father sent him to the United States, to live with his brothers in Miami. When he was 16, Poitier moved to New York City. There he found his passion for acting. Being low on cash, he worked out a deal with the American Negro Theater, where he would do janitorial work in exchange for acting lessons.
Poitier made his Hollywood film debut in the 1950 film No Way Out. But it was his performance in the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle that got people talking. Blackboard Jungle dealt with the “explosive subject” of “teenage terror in the schools”, according to the film’s trailer. Poitier’s portrayal of a gifted student who preferred causing trouble should have been enough to get Hollywood breaking down his door for roles. But it was 1956, and the parts for Black actors were barely dignified and slim.
In 1957, Poitier was cast as Porgy in the film adaptation of Porgy and Bess. He’d originally turned down the role, due to “the fear that if improperly handled, Porgy and Bess could conceivably be, to my mind, injurious to Negroes”. This statement speaks volumes. Portier wasn’t anywhere near a big star at this point in his career. One would say that he had a belief that it was his duty, as a Black actor, to set a precedent for how black stories were told on screen.
It was difficult enough for Black actors in the 1950s to get real roles, and there was a young Black actor holding out for roles of substance. It would have been easy for him to fall into line with what Hollywood wanted from black actors at that time, but he had integrity.
Poitier stuck to his principles and the starring roles got better. Poitier continually delivered three-dimensional characters that left audiences wanting more. In 1958 Poitier became the first Black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in The Defiant Ones. In 1963, he became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for Lilies in the Field. Poitier became the only dramatic black actor to work continuously in leading roles.
In 1967, Poitier delivered three very different yet equally strong performances. He played Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia detective working a case in the deep South, In The Heat of the Night. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he played a Black man engaged to a white woman in this groundbreaking look at interracial marriage. He also starred as inner-city teacher Mark Thackeray in the British film To Sir, with Love. Think Lean on Me set in an all-white school, with a 60s Rock n Roll vibe in Britain.
The roles he played were all considered “respectable” characters. Hollywood seemed to place Poitier as the “safe” Black man to appear in films that were mostly white spaces. His characters were usually there to help the white characters solve their problems. Poitier’s popularity began to rise at the height of the Civil Rights Movement which moved into the Black Power Movement.
With the assassination of Black leaders Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, Black audiences weren’t necessarily looking for a “safe” Black man in their movie going experiences. Poitier’s elegance and class seemed to put him at a disadvantage during the Blaxploitation era of film. A new generation of moviegoers was looking for a hero with attitude and force. And Hollywood was looking for actors to be “Blacker”. The 1970s era ushered in the likes of Richard Roundtree as Shaft and Ron O’Neal as Super Fly. When Poitier started to receive public criticism for not being more politically radical in his films, he decided to step away from Hollywood for a while, retreating to the Bahamas.
Poitier considered giving up acting but decided to move his creativity behind the camera. In the 70s and 80s, Poitier returned to direct several movies, like Uptown Saturday Night and Stir Crazy. Some of which he co-starred in and co-wrote. With these films, he hoped to create opportunities for Black actors to appear in a new type of comedy film. One that would be enjoyed by all audiences. Poitier once said, “I wanted to make movies in which Black people could sit in the theater and laugh at themselves without restraint and feel good about it”.
Poitier worked extremely hard to make sure he wasn’t destined to only work in the stereotypical Black roles offered during his time, and he refused to be defined by his race. He worked on and off-screen to fight for racial equality and was known to shut down the media’s attempt to keep the subject of his race as the main conversation.
At a press junket, Poitier famously rebuffed reporters, saying, “You ask me questions that continually fall within the ‘negro-ness’ of my life. You ask me questions that pertain to the narrow scope of the summer riots. I am an artist, a 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.”
Sidney Poitier is a guiding star for many of our famed Black actors today. Even though he was considered soft for the times, without him there would be no Richard Roundtree. No Denzel Washington. No Samuel L. Jackson. No LaKeith Stanfield. In being mindful of the roles that he chose, Poitier helped to break down the color barrier in film and dignified the roles he portrayed as a noble, leading Black star.
Written for Video Trust
December 2, 2021
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is a Pittsburgh based hub for inspiration, pop culture, and general geekdom. She is also the former producer of Pittsburgh’s 48 Hour Film Project and host of several entertainment-centered podcasts.