In the late 1960s, when black actors still struggled for mainstream recognition, Sidney Poitier, who has died in the Bahamas at the age of 94, managed to become the biggest star in Hollywood. It remains a remarkable accomplishment.
In 1967, two films starring Poitier – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and To Sir, With Love – secured positions on the year’s box office top 10. A third, In the Heat of the Night, won the Academy Award for best picture.
A generation before Denzel Washington and Will Smith became superstars, the mellifluous, breathtakingly handsome actor eased open the door. He had secured Hollywood fame a decade earlier in films such as The Defiant Ones and Porgy and Bess.
In 1964, winning for Lilies of the Field, he became the first black man to take the Oscar for best actor. He acted less in later years, but remained an inspiring figure to younger professionals.
In 1997, he was appointed as ambassador to Japan for his native Bahamas and also serves as the country’s representative at Unesco. Honorary awards came his way in abundance.
One of the greats
For all his breaking down of barriers, Poitier will, however, be first remembered as one of the great movie stars. As was the case with Clark Gable, Cary Grant and James Stewart, his talents stretched beyond the delivery of a line. He had a monumental charisma that drew attention to his corner of the screen.
In the Heat of the Night gave him countless scenes to showcase those near-supernatural gifts. Playing Virgil Tibbs, a cop from Philadelphia stuck investigating a murder with a racist cop in Mississippi, he got to offer a defiant rebuke to those everywhere who patronise with language. “What do they call you up there?” Rod Steiger’s character asks. “They call me MISTER Tibbs, ” Poitier declaimed.
Still more powerful was the scene where, struck by a local big wig, he doesn’t pause before slapping him back. In The Heat of the Night was not any sort of radical film. Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which he played a saintly doctor engaged to the daughter of white San Francisco liberals, now seems positively antediluvian in its cosy racial politics.
But those films still moved the conversation. Poitier was already able to change minds with his presence alone. One variation of movie stardom is the talent to shift roles while still retaining a consistent essence. With Cary Grant that essence had to do with suavity and mischievousness. With Poitier it was an intelligent integrity. If he told us something we would listen.
Route to fame
Poitier took a roundabout road to stardom. The child of Bahamian farmers, he was born, two months premature, when his parents were visiting Miami. He lived on Cat Island to the age of 10 and then moved with the family to Nassau.
Five years later he travelled back to Miami – it is probably acceptable to call him one of the great American movie stars – and then progressed towards New York City.
He was working at various low-paid service jobs when he decided to audition for the American Negro Theater company in Harlem. As long ago as 1950, he secured a decent role in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz film noir No Way Out.
Poitier continued to work steadily throughout the decade before hitting massive success in Kramer’s The Defiant Ones in 1958. Poitier played a prisoner who escapes while manacled to the unfriendly Tony Curtis. It received eight Oscar nominations, and Poitier became the first black man nominated as best actor.
Lilies of the Field, a pleasant film starring Poitier as a handyman helping out rural nuns, is not much celebrated now, but it secured its place in cinema history for providing Poitier with that Oscar win.
By the end of the 1960s there was a backlash among some critics against the allegedly unthreatening nature of Poitier’s roles. “I represent 10 million people in this country and millions more in Africa… and I’m not going to do anything they can’t be proud of,” he said at a press conference in 1968.
But he saw which way the wind was blowing. “My career as a leading man in Hollywood was nearing its end,” he wrote in his later memoir The Measure of a Man.
Poitier acted throughout the 1970s, but his energies were not those of the rougher-edged black cinema that was then emerging. One can see him as a transitional figure between “golden age” Hollywood – he was shooting uncredited roles in the late 1940s – and the new cinema that emerged in the wake of the 1960s cultural and social revolutions.
He responded to the shifts in fashion by moving towards direction and had a big hit with the comedy Stir Crazy in 1980. Ambassadorial duties increased as he passed into his later years.
He was twice married – to Juanita Hardy and to the actor Joanna Shimkus, who survives him – and had a lengthy relationship with the gifted entertainer Diahann Carroll. He received the Kennedy Center Honor and, from Barack Obama, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1974, as a representative of a Commonwealth nation, he was appointed Knight Commander by Queen Elizabeth II.
He was one of the art form’s most beautiful giants.