The passing of Sidney Poitier in early January signified the end of an era for the “Golden Age” of cinema. The pioneering actor, who represented most of the profound African-American acting roles throughout the 1950s and 1960s, left a legacy that broke social barriers while paving the path for many people of color in the entertainment industry currently.
Poitier, whose family is originally from the Bahamas, captured the essence of the American dream. He was able to attain that status by showcasing his undeniable thespian talent in a myriad of films and TV roles throughout his brilliant career.
While he worked to perfect his craft, he toiled tirelessly through poverty as a dishwasher along with other menial jobs before he was able to earn leading roles on Broadway. Poitier’s acceptance to the American Negro Theater eventually lead to critically acclaimed performances in films as his name would be illuminated on the top of theater marquees.
His performance in the 1950 film, “No Way Out,” showcased a dignified and intelligent doctor with the task to care for a white bigot (Richard Widmark) who objected to being a patient to a black man.
Poitier’s character, Dr. Luther Brooks, demonstrated the resolve to care for a ruthless individual regardless of personal bias and through racial tension that provided a foundation that contributed to his enduring career which stepped away from standard stereotypical roles at the time.
His supporting role in “Blackboard Jungle,” solidified his acting prowess. However, Poitier’s acting abilities went to a new level of recognition with his first Academy Award nomination in 1958 for the character he portrayed in “The Defiant Ones.”
This role gave credence to Poitier’s ability to captivate an audience while furnishing the ideals of equality in an industry filled with racial prejudice and inequity for people of color.
As Noah Cullen in “The Defiant Ones,” which also starred Tony Curtis in his Academy Award-winning role, Poitier thrived on the big screen. The 1958 film is about how two escaped convicts of different ethnic backgrounds (one white/one Black) could coexist and cooperate with one another in order to survive while being shackled at the wrist.
This on-screen allegory of two men of different races bound by hatred but joined in solidarity in order to persevere and thrive was the start of a nation willing to take an introspective look into the absurdity of racism by being immersed in the art of film.
Poitier’s prominence garnered attention throughout the country by being the embodiment of the Black male voice in films. His star power as a renowned entertainer was a substantial step of acceptance during the Civil Rights Movement. This allowed Poitier the ability to exhibit his talents as an actor to an even broader audience.
Poitier managed to wipe away many stereotypes when he picked up an Academy Award as Best Actor for his charming yet strong performance in the 1963 film, “Lilies in the Field.” This was a first for a Black man. It was also the first time that a Bahamian-American actor had claimed such an honor.
A man of integrity, Poitier was not just an actor of happenstance that rode the coattails of fame as Hollywood’s token Black box-office maven. Instead, he used that platform to help set an example to those fighting for equality during the Civil Rights Movement that he was more than willing to join in that battle.
He marched for jobs and freedom in Washington in 1963 and was in attendance during Martin Luther King’s famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the famous March on Washington. Poitier was a strong advocate for equality and often demonstrated that he was just as equal to his white peers when it came to securing roles of influential characters that he played on the big and small screen.
In many ways, all of Poitier’s breakthrough roles were without question his own contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. With the political and social landscape changing slowly and very begrudgingly towards equality in the 1960s, Poitier continued to demonstrate his ability not to be typecast as anything but a leading actor in roles of social importance.
In 1967, Poitier became the biggest box office draw in the nation due to his socially relevant performances and genuine charisma in movies including, “To Sir, with Love,” where he battled racial and social issues by playing a British teacher to troubling youths in the inner city of East London.
Then there was the groundbreaking “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” a film (1967) that shed light on the nation’s tepid acceptance of interracial couples.
Poitier came through with another searing performance, starring in the murder drama, “In the Heat of the Night.” Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a detective who investigates a murder in Mississippi, the heart of the deep south. Perhaps Poitier’s most one-liner of his career took place during the film in which he belts out, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”
All of this is derived from Sparta Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger), in a heated argument, describes Tibbs in a derogatory fashion and asks Det. Tibbs what name he goes by at home. The silent fury and disdain seen in Poitier’s eyes before swallowing his anger in order to speak back to the chief is identifiable.
It was the look of the same frustration that most Black men and women felt during and before the time of the Civil Rights Movement. They’re experiencing it today.
The roles and characters that Poitier chose to portray gave more public awareness to the racial issues that the Civil Rights Movement was diligently fighting against. His on-screen personas may have given hope and inspiration to those individuals who needed to see how powerful a man of color can become in the face of adversity.
His impact in the entertainment industry is monumental, but Poitier’s messages in his performance were legendary.
Featured Image: Sidney Poitier in “A Raisin in the Sun, New York, New York. 1959. Photo by Gordon Parks