In 1964, the year that Martin Luther King won the Nobel Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, Poitier won the best actor award for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” which marked another first. “Lilies” was a small movie that became a huge success. It would be 38 years before another black actor won in that category.
For most of his five-decade career, Poitier was a movie star, Hollywood’s first black superstar. Handsome, intelligent, confident, even noble, Poitier could also rage with barely suppressed rage.
In 1967, Poitier starred in three blockbuster films: “In the Heat of the Night,” which won best picture, “To Sir, With Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, Also nominated for best picture. He became the top box office star that year.
Critics weren’t thrilled with “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” But audiences were. The film became the biggest box office success in Columbia history.
With his successes, many wanted to use Poitier as a figurehead in the fight against racism, hoping that he and his characters would further express the fury of the late 1960s against racial bigotry. Yet these critics and opportunists (sometimes they were the same) failed to acknowledge that Poitier had been a racial activist for decades, undermining America’s continuing proclivity for black stereotypes and clichés.
“The problem came down to why he was not more angry and confrontational,” wrote Poitier in his memoirs, “The Measure of a Man.” “In essence, they were berating me for playing exemplary human beings.”.
Poitier, who came to Hollywood at age 22, said that becoming the only prominent black actor in movies “invited an unbearable sense of responsibility: being the only black person in the entire MGM lot except for the shoeshine.”
In 1989, Poitier told an interviewer: “He carried the hopes and aspirations of an entire people. I had no control over the content, no creative influence except to refuse to make a movie, which I often did. “
In the decades before Poitier’s arrival, the roles offered to blacks were often small, supportive roles, in scenes that were easily cut for screens in racist markets.
Poitier was a different actor from the beginning. Like his early role models, Montgomery Clift and Marlon BrandoPoitier possessed a distinctive voice, with a soft and reassuring timbre developed during his early years on Cat Island in the Bahamas.
She reportedly turned down offers to star in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Both roles earned Oscar nominations for best actor for Morgan freeman, cementing his status as one of the preeminent contemporary black character actors.
Poitier won the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globes Award in 1982 and the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. In 1992, the actor became the first black to receive the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was ranked 22nd on the AFI list of the “25 Greatest Male Stars of All Time” in 1999. He received honors from the Kennedy Center in 1995.
In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Poitier the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Poitier’s career came full circle in 2002 when the Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar “for his extraordinary performances and unique screen presence and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.” That night, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry they won top acting honors for “Training Day” and “Monster’s Ball,” respectively. It was the first time an African-American actress had won and only the second for a black actor.
Washington’s “bad cop” role in “Training Day” was certainly one Poitier would have rejected. But Poitier smiled when Washington said from the stage of the Oscars show: “I will always follow in your footsteps.”
In 2011, Poitier received the Chaplin Lifetime Achievement Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Looking back on his career, Poitier wrote in “The Measure of a Man”: “There is a place for people who are angry and defiant, and sometimes they have a purpose, but that has never been my role.”
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Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor, has passed away