Sir Sidney Poitier, the trailblazing Bahamian-American actor and director, has died at age 94, the Bahamian government confirmed Friday.
Poitier was the first Black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field in 1963.
Swaths of the baby boom generation came of age watching Poitier on screen, and each seemed to have their own Sidney.
In his triple-blockbuster year of 1967—To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—I saw the man I wanted to become, even if I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at. It was like watching a mystery unwrap itself in an enigma, a screen presence that was brilliant yet marked by an unmistakable self-consciousness. My Sidney came at the sweet spot of a halcyon decade unwrapping itself in the new age of mass media.
“Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones,” The New York Times critic Vincent Canby would write as the decade came to an end, relegating a body of work that prefigured and later personified the civil-rights movement to “an accident of timing.” A half-century later, those performances seem more a unique fourth wall, Poitier’s “I’m-not-exactly-sure-how-I-see-all-this” look mirroring an audience watching a man watching history play itself out through him.
As indeed it was. While filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, where he plays a doctor who marries the daughter of white socialites, the Supreme Court overruled antediluvian states-rights laws prohibiting interracial marriage. In a Time magazine cover of young newlyweds two months later, the groom, Guy Smith, has Poitier’s “I’m-not exactly-sure- how-I-see-all-this” look, though the film had yet to come out. A speech by the maid of Poitier’s on-screen in-laws in the movie presaged a Black-on-Black backlash that would soon reduce him to a cultural stereotype. “You ain’t foolin’ me for a minute,” she tells him. “I see what you are. You’re one of those smooth-talkin’ smart-ass n-----s just out for all you can get with your Black power and all that other trouble-making nonsense.”
It ain’t easy being ugly and early. Whoever your personal Sidney is or was, Poitier’s passing marks a career highlighted by firsts. With a quiet grace not unlike contemporaries Jackie Robinson and Harry Belafonte, he broke Hollywood’s color line in 1950 with a leading role as a doctor in a poor part of town in No Way Out. The first of many lines he would cross, Poitier would become the first Black actor to:
- be nominated for Best Actor Oscar, for 1958’s The Defiant Ones.
- win the award (Lilies of the Field in 1963). He would remain the only Black actor to take that award until Denzel Washington in 2002.
- be the top-grossing lead actor ($165 million worldwide in 1967), that same year, and to command $1 million per film (unheard-of but for Marlon Brando), and use that power to “green light” a film that would not have been made otherwise. Deferring the bulk of his compensation for To Sir With Love to the unheard-of “back-end” of gross profits, Poitier enabled a film shot for $700,000 to gross $85 million worldwide, paving the way for the “low- budget blockbuster,” commonly thought to have begun a year later with Night of the Living Dead.
- become a “franchise” film star (In the Heat of the Night, generating two sequels), and (but for Gordon Parks with Shaft) director of 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night, which also spawned two sequels.
- direct a film grossing more than $100 million (1980’s Stir Crazy), a feat not repeated by a Black American until the 21st century.
- be knighted by the English crown.
- be awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- bestow an on-screen interracial kiss (1965’s A Patch of Blue), and
- wage off-screen defiance of a studio, with In the Heat of the Night.
That defiance provides the true measure of the man. Though it would prove his signature role, Poitier refused to play a northern detective helping a Mississippi police chief solve a local murder unless the film was shot up North. He also insisted a scene in which he’s slapped by a plantation-owning Ku Klux Klansman be altered. “I’m going to slap him back,” he informed United Artists, the movie to be “shown nowhere in the world, with me standing there taking the slap from the man.” The film’s most powerful moment, helping propel it to the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, it was the sole sequence shot down South: Poitier relented at director Norman Jewison’s pleading and spent the three nights of the shoot with a gun under his pillow at a Holiday Inn, the only hotel that accepted Negro guests.
But far more tellingly, that defiance remained unknown for decades in which Poitier, a reluctant interview at best, deflected questions about color: “I want people to feel when they leave the theater that life and human beings are worthwhile. That is my only philosophy about the pictures I do.” Even then, his reasons came secondhand or reluctantly. In 1964, he and Belafonte had flown secretly to Mississippi after the murders of civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman (with $70,000 to fund the movement) and had been chased from the airport by armed Klansmen, barely escaping with their own lives.
Relating it in a 2012 documentary, Belafonte recalls Poitier’s characteristic quip after they’d escaped: “Don’t ever call me again.” (Read on: We’ll come to the impact of an earlier act of charity/Black empowerment, when Poitier, Belafonte, and Jackie Robinson began the Africa-American Students Association, funding college tuition for Africans from 1959-1963.)
Poitier deflected the importance of returning the Klansman’s on-screen blow when asked about it in a 2013 interview: “I would’ve been insulting every Black person in the world [had he not].” Many at the time, however, felt the movement was first weaponized at the end of those five fingers: “The slap heard round the world,” Jewison later called it.
Not everyone saw it that way. The era’s political and racial tumult would place his representation of Blackness in a crosshairs, marking the downward spiral of his acting career and an ensuing decade spent behind the camera as much as on-screen. A 1967 New York Times op-ed, “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?” labeled him a “showplace n-----” and coined the phrase “Sidney Poitier Syndrome” for a conundrum that very successful Black Americans would endure from Nat King Cole to Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby (who became film stars under Poitier’s direction in the 1970s) to Will Smith, who graduated from TV and stage to film star with 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation.
And here the ironies abound, as Smith played a young con-man who ingratiates himself with an Upper East Side family as an alleged classmate of their Ivy League children, and the son of... Sidney Poitier. The film’s highlight is his monologue chronicling Poitier’s rise from poverty in the Bahamas to his filmography, until his hosts chime in: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner!”—reprising the socialites Poitier had to win over in that film, as the Ivy League doctor who’d met their daughter on vacation in Hawaii. Often cited at the top of reasons White America loves Sidney Poitier so, his accommodationist stereotype is personified by a line delivered, if sardonically, to his in-laws: “Every single one of our children will be president of the United States.” Smith would become the next top-grossing Black American actor in 2007, 14 years later, and 40 after Poitier.
That year, as fate would have it, saw the appearance of Poitier’s The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography, in which the extreme measures he underwent on that torturous path from the Bahamas through his filmography were at long last chronicled. Rather than reprise, I rather recommend readers to that journey, if not for its jaw-dropping account of the strength needed to endure it, then to put the lie to Canby 40 years later. For Poitier’s roles were in no way, shape, or form an “accident of timing.” They were the choices of a man trying to find his way as history unwrapped itself onscreen, choices he was at first lauded to be first to make, then excoriated for. As a savant opines in the film Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: “[W]hy is it that a prophet is without honor in his own country? Because prophets exist between times... The holes made by prophets to look into the future are the same ones through which historians will see monuments of the past.”
And indeed, 2008 saw a truly historic monument: the ascendancy of another American-born gentleman who spent his childhood abroad, his parents having met a half-century earlier in Hawaii, where his Kenyan father could never have attended college but for a scholarship funded by Poitier et al.
“Every Black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier,” President Barack Obama would later write of his own childhood, the last of the baby boomers to grow up seeing his Sidney Poitier on the big screen. Like both the actor and his doctor character, this future Ivy Leaguer would have his embodiment of color critiqued, by those of his own color as well as a certain orange-faced man.
He had no doubt of his own however, or, if so, was able to bear it with the strength and quiet grace of his spiritual forebear. His Sidney Poitier had shown him that “to be Black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.”