Sidney Poitier – who turns 94 on February 20 – has received virtually every showbiz award possible: an Oscar, a Grammy, a Golden Globe, as well as Life Achievement Awards from AFI, BAFTA, NAACP Image Awards , SAG and Kennedy Center Honors, to name a few. . While the kudos have been numerous, they are not enough to express the depth of his lasting impact on the entertainment industry, starting with being the first black winner of the Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field ”.
The lack of diversity in the film industry is still a problem in the 21st century. But diversity was almost non-existent when Poitier made his film debut in the 1950’s “No Way Out”. There had been other black actors in the film’s lead roles, including James Edwards and Harry Belafonte, but they were extremely rare. And Poitier captured the public’s imagination like no one before him, with his soft yet powerful voice (with that slight unidentifiable Bahamian accent) and, most importantly, his integrity.
In 1965, two years after ‘Lilies of the Field’, he was such a well established star that a Variety The story carried the banner, “It’s Poitier or it’s nothing,” saying that studios avoided racially themed films unless the actor played them. He was opening doors, but it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t ubiquitous.
On Jan. 3, 1968, Variety said “Poitier is the greatest film actor of the year, black or white.” It enjoyed three box office hits the year before, “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Mister, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, earning a then-spectacular fee of $ 750,000 per film. .
But it wasn’t just the money. In this 1968 article, Variety said the actor created fully fleshed out characters. Poitier displayed intelligence, leadership, humor and a playful sexuality that was “a million light years away” from the stereotype of earlier roles like the 1959 “Porgy and Bess” stereotype.
When Variety had announced his casting in “Porgy” on December 11, 1957, the article said he initially turned down the role, due to “fear that if mismanaged” Porgy and Bess “might be, to my mind. opinion, harmful to negroes, ”as he said.
It was a simple but extraordinary statement. At that time, Poitier was not a major star, having only made six films in seven years; his breakthrough in “The Defiant Ones” of 1958 was still a year away. And it was hard enough for black actors of the 1950s to get a role. Additionally, “Porgy and Bess” was a high-profile project, based on the prestige hit Gershwins-DuBose Heyward, directed by Otto Preminger and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. But he had his principles and he stuck to them.
And in just a decade, the leading roles have improved. Over the next several decades, Poitier enlightened audiences by bringing three-dimensional characters to people who might never have met a black person. He played characters that people wanted to know better.
Critics sometimes complained that her roles in “Lilies of the Field”, “A Patch of Blue” and “To Sir With Love”, among others, were too idealistic. The 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” hinges on whether Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy will approve of Poitier’s engagement with their daughter (Katherine Houghton). The joke among Hollywood sophistries was that she was not good enough for him.
But these critics misunderstood the national and international mood. Just six months before the film’s release, interracial marriages were still illegal in 17 of the 50 states, or one-third of the country. In June 1967, the Supreme Court struck down these laws. While the “Guess Who Comes” message of tolerance may seem simplistic today, it has opened eyes to many.
“In the Heat of the Night”, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was also controversial that year. As a northern detective implicated in a Mississippi murder investigation, Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs displayed all of the actor’s virtues: intelligence, decency, humor, sensitivity, and a load of charisma.
Tibbs keeps his cool as he is hampered in his investigation by fanatics. At one point, a powerful local white man slaps Tibbs, who slaps him back. It’s hard to say how shocking this has been for some audiences – and cathartic for others.
The film was released just three years after the federal Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964 after a debate in Washington on the pros and cons of equal rights. More than a quarter of Congress voted against.
As the news frequently reminds us, racial equality is still an ongoing struggle, even after all these years. But Sidney Poitier made the difference. He’s always a reminder of what people – and Hollywood – are capable of.
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