Professor Hermine Pinson of Africana Studies remembers Sidney Poitier the Bahamian-American actor, film director, and diplomat.
“He was a Bahamian who was able to stride across the world like a colossus . . . And it is therefore possible for any other Bahamian to do that, to follow in that route. . .”
Fred Mitchell, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahamas
The world poured out its love for Sidney Poitier who died at the age of 94 on January 6, 2022. I first saw Poitier on tv in the fifties film Blackboard Jungle, or perhaps I saw him in the filmed play Porgy and Bess with Dorothy Dandridge, the one and only time they showed it on tv. Needless to say, he was the epitome of black elegance, forbearance, poise, and strength. He was a real movie star, right up there with Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, and Elizabeth Taylor, (the dominant actors on the screen at the time), and whenever he appeared in anything, black folks telephoned each other, whether next door, across the street, or interstate, because seeing a black actor who wasn’t playing a porter or fieldhand or butler was rare.
Sidney Poitier, the youngest of nine children, was born on Cat Island in Nassau Bahamas, the son of tomato farmers. He was sent by his family to live in Miami at the age of 15. He soon moved to New York, in flight from Jim Crow and in search of opportunity. He responded to an ad for actors for the American Negro Theater and met there another Caribbean immigrant, Harry Belafonte, who became a life-long friend.
Poitier started off in the theater, perhaps most memorably in Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun (1959), but he was eventually cast in his first film by Darryl F. Zanuck. He played Dr. Luther Brooks in “No Way Out (1950), then a wayward student in Blackboard Jungle, in 1955. He won a Best Actor Oscar, the first for a black actor, for his role as a drifter who helps a group of impoverished nuns build a chapel in Lilies of the Field (1963). Poitier was the first black man to win the Oscar in 1964 and remained so until 2001 when Denzel Washington, a Poitier protégé, won an Oscar for acting. Poitier is best remembered for iconic films such as The Defiant Ones, Raisin in the Son, In the Heat of the Night, To Sir with Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (one of the first American films to portray an interracial romantic relationships). The latter film was important as a cultural statement, coming as it did in 1967, in the midst of the Black Power movement. Then, there were those films that Poitier produced and/or directed, most notably A Piece of the Action, A Warm December, and Buck and the Preacher.
Our resident Poitier scholar, Professor Arthur Knight once wrote of Poitier in the edited volume New Constellations: Movie Stars of the 1960s, that he “worked to express what he, and many, felt was the essential seriousness of the times and the seriousness of the opportunity, the responsibility, to at once revise the history of and expand the possibilities of black representation in Hollywood films. At the same time, Poitier looked for ways to present the pleasure that attracted audiences to the movies—that had attracted him to the movies when he first saw them in Nassau—and that, in complex ways, attended his quintessentially American success” (“ It’s Not Great to Be A Symbol”).
Poitier broke barriers in Hollywood, but he also used his celebrity status to work for social and political change in the United States, his birthplace, and the world. In 2009 then-president Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising Poitier for his “singular talent” and as an actor who used “the power of movies to bring us closer together.”