Hollywood’s First Major Black Actor, Sidney Poitier dies at 94
Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win the best actor Oscar, has died at 94.
The Hollywood star’s death was confirmed to the BBC by the office of Fred Mitchell, the Bahamas’ minister of foreign affairs. Poitier was a trailblazing actor and a respected humanitarian and diplomat. He won the Academy Award for best actor for Lilies of the Field in 1963.
Former US President Barack Obama said Poitier “epitomised dignity and grace” and had “singular talent“.
He added that the actor revealed, “the power of movies to bring us closer together” and “opened doors for a generation of actors”. US broadcaster and journalist Oprah Winfrey also paid tribute, saying: “For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen,” adding the actor “had an enormous soul I will forever cherish”.
In 1967, Poitier became the top box office draw with three popular movies out the same year: To Sir With Love, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and In The Heat of the Night, in which he played big city detective Virgil Tibbs. In one iconic scene, Tibbs questions a murder suspect, a wealthy plantation owner, who slaps him — and the detective immediately slaps back. The white man is taken by surprise, and so were many moviegoing audiences.
Film critic Elvis Mitchell says there was a time when Black audiences were just happy to see someone on screen who wasn’t, for example, carrying a tray. But eventually, dissatisfaction with the civil rights movement and Poitier’s mostly non-threatening roles made him an easy target.
“He suddenly went from being the lone representation of his race to being unfairly castigated as the man who apologized for being Black. And he was just working, he wasn’t in control of the movie business, he didn’t choose to make the movies — he chose to be in them because he just wanted to work.”
Against the hot wind of criticism, Poitier set a new course, claiming new territory for Black performers: He starred in, and directed comedies with large Black casts — the best known are Uptown Saturday Night and Let’s Do It Again. There was a romance, For the Love of Ivy, in which he played opposite the late singer and actress Abbey Lincoln. His debut as a director was Buck and the Preacher, a Western with comic touches, about freed slaves homesteading out West.
As he moved further away from acting, he directed Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy in 1980 his biggest commercial hit as a director. In 2002, nearly 75 years old, Sidney Poitier received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.
“I accept this award in memory,” he said on stage, “of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years, on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand to see where I might go.”
There was a standing ovation for Sidney Poitier. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Best Actress and Best Actor that night, marking a new first at the Oscars. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Sidney Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States.