Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

Sidney Poitier’s career was a turning point in Hollywood history: the elevation to leading male status of an actor of a race previously transferred to near-oblivion on Western screens.

Before Poitier, who died at the age of 94, black artists played largely supporting roles or caricature roles (such as the actor whose name became synonymous with comic serviceability, Stepin Fetchit). Poitier brought humanity and dignity, a vivid naturalism as well as a good looks of a movie star. Early movies like No way out and Blackboard Jungle announced a newcomer who combines sex appeal with a special blend of restraint and intensity. It seemed as if the emotions that kept Poitier dormant on screen remained dormant, or whether it was a convicted playmaker who had fled The challenging or a racially abused policeman in In the heat of the night, was as captivating as those to whom he gave ventilation.

It was hardly his fault that being a black role model on screen threatened to turn him into a two-dimensional icon: the kind of ethnic paradigm from which he saved American film in the first place, although the image in his case was more sacred than serviceable. Poitier’s role as a qualifying bachelor doctor in the race-relationship morality drama Guess who comes for dinner (1967) was ridiculed by many critics as the reductio ad absurdum. The character was so full of virtues, so filled with high-octane special pleas, that he became less human than a one-man ambassador for black America.

Poitier played a policeman who faced racial abuse in 'In the Heat of the Night'

Poitier played a policeman who faced racial abuse in ‘In the Heat of the Night’ © Shutterstock

He received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for 'The Defiant Ones' (1958) in which he co-starred with Tony Curtis

He received an Oscar for Best Actor for ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958) in which he starred with Tony Curtis © Silver Screen Collection / Getty

It was especially unfair given that Poitier became involved in the civil rights movement at a certain risk to himself. In the summer of 1964, he accompanied musician Harry Belafonte to donate $ 70,000 to activists in Greenwood, Mississippi; upon their arrival they were pursued while driving through the Ku Klux Klan.

The actor’s career and life story was remarkable. Seventy-five years before they received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the historic 2002 ceremony, where African-American artists won both Best Actor and Best Actress Awards in the same year for the first time (Denzel Washington, Halle Berry ), Sidney Poitier came into the world. in Miami, Florida. Born on February 20, 1927, during a visit to the USA by his Bahamian parents, he was the son of a tomato-growing farmer. Poitier, who was raised on Cat Island in the Bahamas, returned to Miami at the age of 15 to live with his brother (and, it is said, to iron out criminal tendencies). Not long after, he moved to New York, he did shameful jobs, slept in a bus station, worked in an Army Veterans Hospital.

His interest in acting began, and almost ended, when he auditioned for the American Negro Theater. Poitier, who was rejected for his thick accent, tried for months to eliminate it and eventually returned for a successful re-audition. He had a bit of a share on Broadway in Lysistrata, when his first proper screen role as a young doctor opposite Richard Widmark in No way out (1950). a prominent role in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) as a high school student (at age 28!) Turned him into a star. He won an Oscar nomination in the jailbreak drama The challenging (1958) and the Oscar itself – the first Best Actor statuette ever awarded to a black artist – for Lilies of the field (1963).

That sentimental story of racial harmony, in which Poitier builds a chapel for a group of German nuns, pointed to the dangers ahead. Cynics began mocking Poitier as Hollywood’s signs of a one-man show to bring racial harmony into line. He was cast in ultra-virtuous roles in the 1965s A Spot Blue and two 1967 films, Guess who comes for dinner and To Sir, With Love. (Poitier starred To Sir, With Love‘s 1996 made-for-TV sequel, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who passed away on Thursday.)

Poitier finally won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964 for 'Lilies of the Field'

Poitier finally won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1964 for ‘Lilies of the Field’ © AP

Poitier (left) and Denzel Washington, who was the next black man to win Best Actor, 38 years later

Poitier (left) and Denzel Washington, the next black man to win the Oscar for Best Actor – 38 years later © USA Today / Reuters

He changed the diet with changing genre films (The Bedford incident, The thin wire, Duel at Diablo) and from the 1970s onwards, he directed a patchwork of medium-budget movies while largely withdrawing from acting. It ranged from a western (Buck and the Preacher) via a whip (A Warm December) to a series of popular but critically despised Blaxploitation comedies. His best directing effort, Stir crazy (1980), owed less to Poitier than to the comic chemistry of stars Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

His return to acting in the late 1980s – Klein Nikita, Sneakers – was less Indian summer, more lukewarm December. By that time, however, it barely mattered. Poitier has already been an icon of Hollywood history and a career model for black stars like Washington, who has acknowledged, both from and on the Academy Awards stage, that Poitier has shown the way.

In 1974, he received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. In 1980 he wrote his first autobiography, This Life. In 1997, he was appointed the Bahamian Ambassador to Japan. Twice married, to Juanita Hardy (in 1950) and actress Joanna Shimkus (1976), he leaves behind six children.

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