They called him Sidney Poitier. A bewitching ball of charisma and charm, the Bahamian-American actor whose debonair frame sometimes belied his force of will didn’t merely break down barriers, he obliterated them. He rose from respected theatrical thespian to Hollywood’s first solo above-the-title African-American star. In 1958 he became the first Black actor nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. He was the first to win in 1963. Along the way he became a notable director, and a tireless Civil Rights advocate. He was not solely a Black movie star. He was the quintessential movie star. At the time of this writing, the details of his death were not known. But the impact of his passing was already deeply felt. He died at age 94.
When Poitier arrived on the scene, Black actors were relegated to supporting roles that could easily be cut in certain parts of the country. But the actor became a bankable box office presence across regions and audiences, gaining greater access and opportunities for other Black actors in the process. Though his roles were radical—promoting the belief that Black and white folks could work, live, and fall in love with each other—for a later generation he typified a kind of quiet, dignified defiance. While Poitier was dignified, he was never quiet.
Born two months premature (he was always ahead of his time) in 1927 in Miami, Florida, during a visit to the United States by his Bahamian parents, Poitier spent his early childhood as one of seven children in the Bahamas before he moved to Miami, and later at the age of 16, to New York City. In the mid-1940s, he joined the American Negro Theater. By 1950, he made his film debut, a leading role playing a doctor defying the bigotry lobbed from his patients in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out.” He gained greater recognition playing a student in “Blackboard Jungle.”
When considering Poitier’s landmark career, I sometimes think about his lesser-known turn in “Edge of the City,” whereby he portrays a supervisor on a shipping dock attempting to rise above his workplace’s prejudice against Blacks in positions of authority by befriending a wayward John Cassavetes. It wasn’t the first time the actor assumed the role of a respected, steadfast African American working toward interracial friendship. But there’s a charm here, a sweet sense of humor and a nimbleness to his mien that feels like the moment where Poitier firmly cracked the code for the persona that would define his career.
By 1958’s “The Defiant Ones,” starring opposite Tony Curtis as runaway inmates chained together, he netted his first Best Actor nomination, becoming a full-blown movie star. He would gain greater acclaim the following year starring in the musical “Porgy and Bess,” and further praise for his stunning performances in both the stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun. His early-1960s run culminated in his history-making Best Actor win for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963, a movie introduced to me by my father, who, like many Black men of his generation, idolized Poitier because he appeared so refined, so much the visual dream of what upward mobility and equality could bring.
That year, Poitier further emerged as a Civil Rights advocate (in 1962 he testified to Congress on the lack of work for Black actors in Hollywood), marching on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. His later run in 1967, wherein he released a trio of critically acclaimed, socially revolutionary films—“To Sir, with Love” (where he gave cinema’s most jubilantly infectious dance performance) “In the Heat of the Night,” and “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner”—fully established him as the standard bearer for the Black movie star.
That title however came with restrictions: Poitier could never shed his fashionable suit or tender good looks to take grittier parts. It’s a persona that soon threw him into sharp contrast with the new violent, ostentatious Black heroes that began populating the more cathartic Blaxploitation films. Poitier discovered new ways to challenge and stretch his star persona through directing. His unique takes on Blaxploitation—such as “Buck and the Preacher” (wherein he pushed Harry Belafonte to a deliciously brilliant, gonzo performance) and “Uptown Saturday Night”—allowed him to return to the lighter, comedic flair he displayed earlier in his career with “Edge of the City.” As a filmmaker he would also helm “Stir Crazy,” the first Black-directed film to gross over $100 million at the box office.
While directing offered Poitier greater freedom, allowing him to recalibrate his stately exterior for dirtier, more colorful avenues, he was not granted total autonomy. As the quintessential “bring him over to dinner for the parents” Black movie star, one conscious of how his choices could either adversely or progressively affect other Black performers, he could never take the darker roles offered to younger, future actors. “I felt very much as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made,” he once wrote. Poitier walked so many, many others could run.
After directing and starring in “A Piece of the Action,” Poitier took an extended hiatus from acting. In that time he settled in with his new wife Joanna Shimkus (they were married in 1976 following the actor’s divorce from Juanita Hardy and his nine-year affair with Diahann Carroll) and added two new daughters—Anika and Sydney Tamiia—to his four children (Beverly, Pamela, Sherri, and Gina) from his previous marriage. He would return to acting in 1988 with “Shoot to Kill” and “Sneakers” (a film that perfectly combined his sophisticated aura with his underrated comedic chops).
Among Poitier’s many gifts—his dashing good looks, his immeasurable talent, and singular screen presence—he was given the gift of time. He watched as the industry that once gasped at a Black man in a relationship with a white woman, or an African American slapping a white guy, or a Black man with the force to establish his humanity, gave way to greater lead roles, and more varied stories concerning, starring, and directed by Black folks.
That change was no more felt than in 2002, when Poitier received the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award. On that same night, 38 years after Poitier’s groundbreaking Oscar win, Denzel Washington became the second Black man to win Best Actor and Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress. It’s fitting then that in the last few months both Washington and Berry, the two clearest links to Poitier, have starred in and directed their own films, winning the same kind of creative space and autonomy he fought so hard to achieve. “I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir,” explained Washington in his acceptance speech for “Training Day.” Washington said it perfectly. We’re all still following in the footsteps of the man they called Sidney Poitier.