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Sidney Poitier: Pioneer in American Film
By Betti Halsell, Staff Writer
Published January 13, 2022

 

Actor Sidney Poitier poses with his Oscar for best actor for “Lillies of the Field” at the 36th Annual Academy Awards in Santa Monica, Calif. on April 13, 1964. (AP Photo, File)

Sidney Poitier performed wholeheartedly and inspired multiple generations. As an actor, producer, and writer, Poitier encapsulated his energy in every scene and in every verse. The gratitude for his contribution to American film reaches across the globe. Poitier gifted the world with his legacy, showcasing the ability to uplift an entire community with his achievements.

The Los Angeles Sentinel has an exclusive archived collection that harvested a moment in 1964 after Poitier became the first Black actor to win an Oscar in the leading role category. Authored by the legendary A.S. “Doc” Young, he called Poitier “A Child of Destiny.”

Poitier was raised in the Bahamas on Cat Island, he lived modestly with his parents. Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier were farmers according to his IMDb biography.  At the age of 15, Poitier tended to lean towards trouble and he was sent to live with his brother in Miami.

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By 18-years-old, he found himself in New York. He worked tirelessly, having moments of shelter inside bus terminal bathroom stalls. Poitier wandered into an impulsive audition at the American Negro Theatre, he was heavily rejected.

President Barack Obama presents the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sidney Poitier during ceremonies in the East Room at the White House in Washington on Aug. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

According to his IMDb Profile, one of the directors said, “Why don’t you give up trying to act and get a job washing dishes or something?” Poitier said to himself, “How did he know I was a dishwasher?”

That harsh reality changed Poitier’s life. He dedicated every waking moment to improving his diction and performance for the next six months. On his second trial, he was accepted in.

Poitier’s career escalated quickly. He was able to choose between leading roles on Broadway or a role in Darryl F. Zanuck’s film, “No Way Out,” (1950). Regardless of the heightened sense of racial imbalance during this time, Poitier sought out leading roles, such as the portrayal of the lead character in “Lilies of Field,” which led him to become the first African American to win an Oscar for the leading role category in 1963.

Through his gift of performance, Poitier addressed the social injustice that was on the rise. Due to his role in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) and “To Sir, with Love,” (1967), major social barriers were broken between racially opposed audiences.

Following his timeline, Poitier lived many lives. The Oscar-winning actor became an ambassador of the Bahamas to Japan. The British Empire awarded him with an honorary Knighthood of Order in 1974. As a filmmaker, he created “Stir Crazy,” (1980) which was “as the highest-grossing film directed by a Black filmmaker until “Scary Movie,” (2000) According to Poitier’s IMDb profile.

Sidney Poitier signs autographs before the opening of the 14th International Film Festival at the West Berlin congress hall on June 26, 1964, in Berlin.. (AP Photo/Edwin Reichert, File)

Holding over 200 credits, Poitier was acknowledged as an actor, producer, and writer. Poitier spoke Russian fluently and received an honorary doctorate degree from the Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Poitier was the first Black actor to immortalize his autograph, hand, and footprints in the cement of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood on June 23, 1967. He received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (7065 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California) on February 1, 1994.  Poitier was a member of the board of directors of Walt Disney.

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Ayuko Babu, co-founder and executive director of the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), released the following statement about the death of the trailblazing actor, director, and activist, Sir Sidney Poitier.

“Mr. Poitier was a loud voice letting the world know who we are when Jim Crow tried to muzzle us.  He portrayed his people with dignity and integrity, setting a standard of consciousness in Hollywood that elevated the roles available to Black actors.

“His iconic films such as ‘Lilies of the Field,’ ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ ‘To Sir, With Love,’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’ opened the door for today’s Black actors to demand roles that portray the Black experience with pride, and for that, we will always love him and be grateful.  His life and work will continue to be an inspiration throughout generations. Our condolences to his family and loved ones. We all share in this tremendous loss,” Babu said.

Coretta Scott King, center, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, left, and actor Sidney Poitier appear for a viewing on a film on the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York on Oct. 22, 1969. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

Publicist Mara Buxbaum issued the following statement on behalf of the Poitier family, “There are no words to convey the deep sense of loss and sadness we are feeling right now. We are so grateful he was able to spend his last day surrounded by his family and friends,” the statement began. “To us, Sidney Poitier was not only a brilliant actor, activist, and a man of incredible grace and moral fortitude, he was also a devoted and loving husband, a supportive and adoring father, and a man who always put family first.

“He is our guiding light who lit up our lives with infinite love and wonder. His smile was healing, his hugs the warmest refuge, and his laughter was infectious. We could always turn to him for wisdom and solace and his absence feels like a giant hole in our family and our hearts,”

The family continued. “Although he is no longer here with us in this realm, his beautiful soul will continue to guide and inspire us. He will live on in us, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren — in every belly laugh every curious inquiry, every act of compassion and kindness. His legacy will live on in the world, continuing to inspire not only with his incredible body of work but even more so with his humanity.”

They added, “We would like to extend our deepest appreciation to every single one of you for the outpouring of love from around the world. So many have been touched by our dad’s extraordinary life, his unwavering sense of decency and respect for his fellow man. His faith in humanity never faltered, so know that for all the love you’ve shown him, he loved you back.”

Halle Berry, the first Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, posted on Instagram, “My dear Sidney, an enormous part of my soul weeps at your passing. In your ninety-four years on this planet, you left an indelible mark with your extraordinary talent, paving the way for Black people to be seen and heard in the fullness of who we are,” said Berry.

idney Poitier, star of “To Sir With Love,” places his hands in wet cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967. (AP Photo/File)

“You were an iconic trailblazer; yours was a life well-lived. I grew up idolizing you and will always remember the day when I first met you. It is the only time in my life when I’ve been rendered speechless!” she continued.

“There I sat, with my words glued together, and you were as gracious and charming then as you would be during our decades of friendship to follow.”

Added Berry, “Rest in peace, beloved Sidney. You are and always will be the true measure of a man.”

Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Through his groundbreaking roles and singular talent, Sidney Poitier epitomized dignity and grace, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. He also opened doors for a generation of actors. Michelle and I send our love to his family and legion of fans.”

Denzel Washington, the second Black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, said in a statement: “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentleman and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family.”

Whoopi Goldberg, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner, shared, “If you wanted the sky, I would write across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high. To Sir… with Love Sir Sidney Poitier R.I.P. He showed us how to reach for the stars,” adding, “My condolences to his family and to all of us as well.”

Actors Sidney Poitier, left, and Jean Seberg appear at the Cannes Film Festival, Cannes, France, for the showing of his film, “A Raisin in the Sun,” on May 13, 1961. (AP Photo, File)

Actor Will Smith wrote on Instagram, “An icon, legend, visionary, and true pioneer. Thank you, Sidney Poitier, for breaking down barriers, creating the path, and making it possible for there to be a Will Smith!”

“I feel so blessed to have had you as my godfather. You were present for every milestone in my life. A role model, mentor, advisor, and a phenomenal human being. You always supported everything I endeavored to accomplish. Your words of wisdom and life lessons will stay with me forever,” stated Shonte Abrams, God-daughter of Sidney Poitier and daughter of the late Sentinel columnist, Gertrude Gibson.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters expressed her condolences and her feeling of great loss, she stated, “Sidney was a kind and generous friend to my husband and me and I am lucky for the friendship I shared with him and his wife, Joanna.  My condolences at this time are with the entire Poitier family and all who mourn him.  I will miss him.”

“Sidney was a true friend and a longtime supporter of the Brotherhood Crusade and the work we did during my presidency of the organization. Sidney was a real warrior for the advancement of Black people and our community. Whether it was lending his name, his time, or his talent, he was always working to move our people forward with a style, class, and elegance that only Sidney could exude. Rest well, my friend,” said Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., chairman of the Brotherhood Crusade and executive publisher of The Los Angeles Sentinel.

Surviving his legacy includes his daughters Judith Schirman, Pamela Poitier, Sherri Poitier, Anika Poitier, and Sydney Tamiia Poitier and wife, Joanna Shimkus, and former partner, Juanita Hardy.  His daughter, Gina Poitier, preceded him in death.

 

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