Reel Icons | Sidney Poitier

4 07 2008

For over five decades, Sidney Poitier has been the platinum standard, not only as an actor of color, but for Hollywood as a whole. For all of the accolades that have been showered on him, never forget that he is a dividing line representing progress for an entire race.

Prior to Poitier’s breakout role in 1950, the history of African-Americans in the motion picture industry has been checkered at best. Reflective of the attitudes of a largely racist nation, Black actors and filmmakers had been relegated to second-class citizenry. 35 years early, D.W. Grifith’s racist manifesto, “Birth of a Nation” had become a cultural phenomenon even counting the sitting President, Woodrow Wilson as a fan.

While several moguls moved from east and created Hollywood, lone filmmaker and visionary Oscar Michauex was one of a few filmmakers that had the resources (barely) and imagination to tell our stories. Early Black actors struggled initially making the transition from silent to talking pictures and then dealing with a limited amount of roles which found them as butlers, servants, labor and criminals. Early stars such as Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Lincoln Perry (Stephit Fetchit), Herb Jeffries, Nina McKinney, Spencer Williams, Mantan Moreland, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson found that because of the racism that existed in the South that their work could easily be cut out of films and then reinserted when their films played in the North.

Against all odds and in a matter that was unprecedented came Poitier. Possessing dashingly handsome looks, steely intensity and a deep-inner fire to succeed. Armed with that it took a leap of faith by studio chief Darryl Zanuck and director Joseph Mankiewicz to cast Poitier in the lead of the 1950 film “No Way Out.” Poitier’s searing feature film debut told the story of a doctor tending to slum residents whose ethics are put to the test when confronted with blind racism. Possessing a rare sense of “watchability,” Poitier would forever shatter the myth that a Black actor couldn’t be a leading man in Hollywood by becoming the first “above the title” Black movie star.

By the close of the decade, it was apparent that Poitier was on his way to being a major film star. He received either BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) or Golden Globe Award nominations for three of his films, “Edge of the City,” “The Defiants Ones” and “Porgy and Bess.” After two more nominations for “A Raisin in the Sun,” Poitier made history becoming the first Black man to win Best Actor for his performance as a handyman in “Lillies of the Field.”

Sidney Poitier’s Best Actor Oscar Acceptance Speech, 1964

With universal respect from his fears, Poitier was fearless breaking one barrier after the next. He released three landmark films in 1967, “To Sir With Love,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and was snubbed for any major awards. His reward was being named the “Top Box Office Star” for that year.

His clean cut image became passé for many younger filmgoers who were turned off his association with the “old guard” of the industry. After several more high-profile studio movies, Poitier turned his attention to directing. He made his debut also starring in the Western, “Buck and Preacher.” Teaming with Bill Cosby, Poitier co-starred in three films, “Uptown Saturday Night,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “A Piece of the Action.” In 1980, he directed Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in the comedy, “Stir Crazy.” The film grossed $101 million making Poitier the first black director to ever accomplish that feat.

While this trailblazer’s star was on the decline, the torch would be passed to another young actor who possessed many of the same traits that Poitier had in his youth. This actor would build on Poitier’s legacy and take it to heights never afforded to him. In a more open society, Denzel Washington has eclipsed Poitier as the most highly decorated Black actor in Hollywood history. A five-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner, Washington should have FOUR Oscars, but that’s another story for another day.

Sidney Poitier Salutes Denzel Washington on His Oscar Win

Meanwhile the impact of Poitier’s career was not just that he opened the door but that now a need breed of actors including Will Smith, Forest Whitaker, Don Cheadle, Djimon Hounsou, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Jamie Foxx and Washington have carved significant niches within the fabric of the Hollywood fimmaking community establishing their own legacies.

It was fitting at the 2002 Oscars that not only would Poitier receive an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievment that both Halle Berry and Washington would take home Best Actress and Actor on the same night. Poitier said it best that Washington’s remarks were “the culmination of his career.”

One of the charter members of the “O-Unit” (The Oscar Unit), Poitier’s impact was so great that to measure his career you have to think of B.S (Before Sidney) and A.S. (After Sidney). For many actors of color today, Black, Hispanic and Asian, they enjoy relative success in Hollywood. While we still have a lot of work today, we need to take time to reflect on one of the true cinematic giants, Sidney Poitier, who dreamed a dream of a better tomorrow that not only came true but will continue to benefit all of us through the end of time – and that surely is no B.S.!

Sidney Poitier Accepting His Honorary Oscar, 2002




One response

7 07 2008
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