To Sidney Poitier, with love

Tributes from Hollywood and other parts of the world were not long in coming in droves following the death of pioneering actor and cultural icon Sidney Poitier yesterday; the announcement was made by the Bahamas Foreign Minister.

Poitier, who was the first black actor to win the Academy Award for a leading role and the first to be a box office powerhouse, was 94: “Over the course of 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried, and did as much mischief as we could. He was really my brother and my partner in trying to make this world a little better. It definitely made my world so much better, “said Actor Harry Belafonte, in a statement.

Denzel Washington said: “It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentle man and he opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. May God bless him and his family ”.

Likewise, Oprah Winfrey posted on Instagram: “It is my honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confident. Master of wisdom. The highest recognition and praise for your magnificent, gracious and eloquent life. He greatly appreciated it. I adored it. He had a huge soul that will be cherished forever. “

The world of politics was also present in this farewell to the actor: “Through his pioneering roles and unique talent, Sidney Poitier embodied dignity and race, revealing the power of movies to bring us closer together. It also opened doors for a generation of actors, “announced former President Barack Obama on the social network Twitter.

Actress Viola Davis also made her feelings known, and on her Instagram commented: “This was a great one. No word can describe how your work radically changed my life. The dignity, normality, strength, excellence, and sheer electricity that you gave to your papers showed us that we, as black people, matter !!! It was an honor”.

Dignity and talent

Poitier was awarded the Oscar in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field.” Few movie stars, black or white, had such a Poitier influence on and off the screen. Before PoitierThe son of Bahamian tomato farmers, no black actor had ever had a leading acting career or could have a movie produced because of his power as a star. Before Poitier few black actors were allowed to break out of the stereotypes of fearful servants or gay performers. Before Poitier, Hollywood filmmakers rarely tried to tell the story of a black person. Poitier’s rise mirrored the profound changes in America in the 1950s and 1960s. As racial attitudes evolved during the Civil Rights era and segregation laws were struck down, Poitier was the actor to whom it turned. industry cautious for stories on progress. He was the escaped black convict who befriends a racist white prisoner (Tony Curtis) in “The Defiant Ones.” He was the gallant office worker who falls in love with a blind white girl in “A Patch of Blue.” He was a worker at “Lilies of the Field” building a church for a group of nuns. In one of his great theater and film roles, he was an ambitious young father whose dreams collide with those of other members of his family in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”. The diversity debates in Hollywood inevitably led to the Poitier story. With his handsome, flawless face, intense gaze, and disciplined style, he was for years not only the most popular black actor, but the only one.

Poitier reached the top in 1967 with three of the most notable films: “To the teacher, with affection” in which he played a teacher who beats his rebellious students at a London high school; “In the Heat of the Night” as determined police detective Virgil Tibbs; and in “Do you know who’s coming to dinner?” as a doctor who wishes to marry a white woman he recently met whose parents were played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in their last film together.

Theater owners named Poitier the number one star of 1967, the first time a black actor had topped the list. In 2009 President Barack Obama, whose tenure was sometimes compared to Poitier’s achievements, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and said the actor “not only entertained but enlightened … revealing the power of the screen to unite us. ”. His appeal also brought him the hardships faced by other historical figures such as Jackie Robinson and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

He was the subject of intolerance by whites and accusations of a lack of struggle by the black community. Poitier was, and was, held to standards above his white colleagues. He refused to play cowards and took on characters, especially in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” of almost divine goodness. He developed a solid and determined personality, occasionally humorous, crystallized in his most famous dialogue “They call me Mr. Tibbs!” from “In the Heat of the Night.”

“To all those who don’t see anything of value when they look at me and then deny my value, to them I say ‘I’m not talking about being as good as you. Here I declare myself better than you, ‘”he wrote in his memoir,“ The Measure of a Man ”published in 2000.

Fans say goodbye to the actor with flowers placed on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. AFP / V. Macon

Stones on the road

It should be noted that fame did not prevent Poitier face racism and condescension. He had jobs to find a home in Los Angeles and was followed by the Ku Klux Klan when he visited Mississippi in 1964, not long after three Civil Rights workers were killed there. In interviews, journalists often overlooked his work and asked him instead about race and current affairs.

“I am an artist, American, contemporary,” he said annoyed during a 1967 press conference. “I am many things so I want you to give me due respect.” Poitier did not become politically involved like his friend and contemporary Harry Belafonte, leading to occasional conflicts between them. But he participated in the 1963 march on Washington and other Civil Rights events and as an actor he defended himself and put his career at risk. He refused to sign pledges of allegiance during the 1950s when Hollywood was against so-called communists, and rejected papers that he found offensive.

“Almost all job opportunities reflected the stereotypical perception of blacks that had infected the entire conscience of the country,” he recalled.

“I didn’t have the ability to do those things. It wasn’t in me. I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values ​​”. Poitier’s films used to be about personal triumphs rather than broader political themes, but Poitier’s classic role, from “In the Heat of the Night” or “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was that of a black man of such decency. and composure – Poitier became synonymous with the word “dignified” – that wins over whites who oppose him. His carrea in film it declined in the late 1960s when political movements, black and white, became more radical and movies more explicit.

He acted less frequently and gave fewer interviews, but at the same time began directing, and his credits include the farce with Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder “Stir Crazy,” “Buck and the Preacher,” and the Bill Cosby comedies “Uptown Saturday Night. ”And“ Let’s Do It Again ”.

A life of effort

Sidney’s life ended with adulation, but it began amid hardships: he was born prematurely weighing just 1.3 kilos, in Miami, where his parents had traveled to deliver tomatoes from their farm on little Cat Island in the Bahamas. He dropped out of school at age 12 to help his family. At 17 he joined the army; upon his return he was rejected twice at the American Negro Theater company, where he obtained the position of theater janitor in exchange for acting classes. When the classes were over, his classmates asked to be given the opportunity in a play. His first job was on Broadway in the play “Lysistrata.” In 1950 he hit the screen with “No Way Out”; from that moment on, his life gave way to legend.



Poitier received numerous honorary awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute and an honorary Oscar in 2002, the same night that two black actors won the Academy Award, Denzel Washington for “Training Day” and Halle Berry for “Monster’s Ball”.

“I’ll always be chasing you Sidney,” said Washington, who had previously presented the honorary award to Poitier, during his speech of appreciation. “I will always be following your trail. There is nothing I would like to do more, sir, nothing more ”.


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