Among the political and social changes occurring across the country during the 1960s, America was torn between supporters of racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement.
As we discovered in last month’s spotlight on Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, Hollywood slowly opened its gates to offer opportunities to non-white actors. This month we look at the life and career of actor, filmmaker, and director Sidney Poitier, the first African American to win an Academy Award in 1964.
Known to play roles of blacks who “stood tall” and did not let themselves be beaten down by whites, Sidney Poitier’s work in the film industry changed the way people viewed African Americans.
He was the son of Bahamians and was born almost three months early on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida, while his parents were selling their tomato crops. Once back in the Bahamas, Sidney Poitier spent his childhood working on his father’s tomato farm on Cat Island. When he was 10, the family moved to Nassau.
In Nassau, teenage Poitier often got into trouble, so his father sent him to Miami to live with one of his brothers. In the United States he encountered racism, something he had not dealt with in the Bahamas.
Poitier was 16, uneducated, broke, and alone when he moved to New York City, yet he remembered his mother’s encouraging words: “Charm them, son, into neutral.”
He started working in small jobs, such as a janitor, in return for acting classes in the American Negro Theater. At first he was rejected because of his thick accent, but he read during his work breaks and listened to the radio until his English pronunciation improved and he was able to be a part of ANT. ANT is where he got his first roles, including Days of Our Youth, the 1946 Broadway production of Lysistrata, and Anna Lucasta, which he toured with the cast across the country for the next few years.
The plays at ANT were made of an all-black cast, something that would change once he reached Hollywood. It was 1950 when he made his movie debut in No Way Out, the Hollywood film featuring black and white actors.
Poitier was able to unite two different races together onscreen, as he did alongside Tony Curtis in the 1958 film The Defiant Ones and as a carpenter who builds a church for a group of nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963), which earned him an Oscar for best actor (the first given to an African American). Sidney Poitier was representing an entire race beyond the stereotypical roles of butlers, maids, and slaves. For a long time, he was Hollywood’s only black actor, and by the late 1950s, he was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the movies.
It’s been 50 years since Poitier became America’s beloved actor and one of the biggest stars. In 1968, the 40-year-old starred in three hit movies: To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which made him that year’s big box office draw. In the low-budget movie To Sir, With Love, he played a high school teacher in London’s troubled East. Poitier starred in the murder mystery In the Heat of the Night, which won an Oscar award for best picture. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the beloved actor played the role of a lawyer who wants to marry a white woman, but the idea of an interracial marriage threatens her parents. It was because of this last film of 1968 that black moviegoers were “recognized as a massive force in the box office.”
Poitier went on to be a director and actor of black romance movies and some successful comedies. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire in 1974, and he served as a non-resident Bahamian ambassador to Japan and was involved with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The now-retired actor turned 90 years old last month, and his career features more than 40 films. He has also written four books: This Life (1980), The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (2000), Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter (2008), and Montaro Caine: A Novel (2013).
In the 1969 film The Lost Man, Poitier asked for half of the cast to be at least 50% African American. His love interest in the film was Canadian-born actress Joanna Shimkus; he married her in 1976, and they had two children. Their interracial marriage continues to the present day.
Poitier has received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom that was honored to him by President Barack Obama in 2009. The White House’s statement said, “Poitier starred in the first mainstream movies portraying ‘acceptable’ interracial marriages and interracial kissing.”
Sidney Poitier united blacks and whites with his acting roles in Hollywood films. He showed America how African Americans could do whatever they set their minds to and how they moved beyond stereotypes and prejudices. Poitier’s work projected a form of protesting against the racial segregation across the country.