During a time when the mere thought of a Black movie star was simply unfathomable to so many in the film industry and beyond, Sidney Poitier starred in the most unlikely Hollywood success story: his own. Poitier, who died Friday at age 94, was born prematurely and underweight in Miami, on February 20, 1927 — during one of his tomato-farming parents’ frequent visits from the Bahamas. The youngest of seven, he gained automatic American citizenship but still grew up largely on tiny Cat Island, with a population of roughly 1500 without modern conveniences, including electricity.
A move to Nassau, the big city, proved just as challenging, with the young Poitier dropping out of school before age 13 to help support the family. When the streets looked like they might get the best of him, he was shipped to Miami at age 15 to live with his brother. Life in Jim Crow America in the 1940s was not for the faint of heart, and a move to New York City didn’t immediately improve his circumstances.
Feigning mental illness to get out of the Army — in which he had enlisted, underage — was perhaps the first flash of the acting greatness that would later become Poitier’s signature. As the prolific dishwasher searched the staple Black newspaper The Amsterdam News for jobs, he stumbled upon an ad for actors for the American Negro Theater (ANT). Answering that call, where he would eventually meet his dear friend Harry Belafonte, set him on a course that would change not just his life, but also the entire entertainment industry.
Considering that even the great Paul Robeson, star of “The Emperor Jones” (1933) and “Showboat” (1936), failed to break through as a mainstream movie star, acting wasn’t the most practical choice for Poitier. Yet against the odds, he set out to enter the profession, committing himself to lose his accent and working as a janitor at ANT in exchange for acting lessons to perfect his craft. His hard work paid off with minor victories, first landing the role of Probulos in the very short-lived 1946 Broadway production “Lysistrata” before scoring an understudy role in “Anna Lucasta,” that led to him joining the cast a year later.
Poitier’s fortunes truly began to change, however, when Darryl F. Zanuck tapped him to play the capable Dr. Luther Brooks, charged with treating a white bigot, in “No Way Out” (1950). That role set the tone for the many race-conscious ones he would go on to play as a “model minority.” His success continued with a starring role in “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) before teaming with popular star Tony Curtis in director Stanley Kramer’s groundbreaking social-justice drama “The Defiant Ones” (1958). Poitier and Curtis starred as prison escapees who are chained together and forced to depend on each other to survive in what became both a critical and commercial hit.
That performance garnered Poitier a Best Actor Oscar nomination, a first for a Black actor. With “Lilies of the Field” (1963) — as veteran Homer Smith, who assists impoverished nuns in their efforts to build a chapel — he shattered the Hollywood glass ceiling, becoming the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar and the only one to do so until Denzel Washington’s win for “Training Day” (2001).
On his way to winning the Academy Award, Poitier confirmed his Hollywood bona fides as a dramatic actor, both by reprising his Tony-nominated role as Walter Lee Younger in playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s trailblazing Broadway play “A Raisin in the Sun,” in the 1961 film, and by tackling the role of Porgy in “Porgy and Bess” (1959). He was also establishing himself as a rare Black romantic leading man, holding his own alongside heartthrob Paul Newman in “Paris Blues” (1961), and romancing Diahann Carroll (providing a glimpse at their off-screen entanglement).
Poitier took his responsibility as a Black actor seriously, parlaying his stardom into real action and change, insisting on playing dignified Black men in an industry with a long history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes of subservient, lazy, and dangerous characters. That stance was particularly impactful to African American Film Critics Association president and CEO Gil Robertson IV. “In many ways, he was the ambassador of Black masculinity, almost single-handedly debunking the worst stereotypes about us, ranging from his roles as an everyman to those where he played a doctor or teacher,” Robertson said in a statement.
Publicly and vocally, Poitier backed the Civil Rights Movement, attending the historic March on Washington in 1963. Taking the lead role in the 1951 film “Cry, the Beloved Country” allowed him to lend his voice to the anti-Apartheid movement early in the struggle. (After the fall of South African Apartheid, he went on to play Nelson Mandela in the TV movie “Mandela and de Klerk” (1997), earning an Emmy nomination.)
In 1967, Poitier enjoyed an explosive year, starring in three hit films that tackled the burning questions of race. For “In the Heat of the Night,” he starred as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who travels to Mississippi to investigate a murder alongside a white cop; the film’s release came just three years after the real-life murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, who was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were white, in the state.
In “To Sir, With Love,” he subtly tackled British racism as overqualified teacher Mark Thackeray, and he reunited with Kramer for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” in which Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice forced white America to examine their feelings about interracial couplings mere months after “Loving v. Virginia” overturned all laws banning such marriages. Poitier holds his own in the latter film, even going toe to toe with screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
Poitier’s career was not exempt from criticism, however. As Black Hollywood scholar Donald Bogle noted in his essential bestseller “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks,” many in the Black community felt that Poitier’s films, particularly during his 1960s heyday, appealed to integrationist sensibilities.
As Hollywood became less interested in tackling racial issues on screen, Poitier shifted gears to behind the camera, directing and starring in films targeted to Black audiences. Most memorably, he teamed with Bill Cosby in three classic Black comedies: “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), and “A Piece of the Action” (1977). Poitier’s directorial debut was the Black Western “Buck and the Preacher” (1972), opposite old friends Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee. And he made history as the first Black director to earn $100 million dollars at the box office, with the success of “Stir Crazy” (1980), starring Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
“Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together,” Barack Obama tweeted. “He also opened doors for a generation of actors.”
Denzel Washington, who looked to Poitier as a mentor and friend, underscored this point when he won his Oscar in 2002, the same night the Academy honored Poitier with an honorary award and that Halle Berry won her historic Oscar. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney,” he said. “I’ll always be following in your footsteps.”
For decades to come, the great Sidney Poitier will be remembered as a trailblazer and pioneer who conquered Hollywood with remarkable talent, dignity, and grace, setting an example for excellence for all to emulate.