The incomparable Sidney Poitier departed this Earth last week, and it’s virtually impossible to detail the impact he had on both the film world and society in general.
When Poitier was awarded an honorary Oscar at the 2002 annual Academy Awards for his monumental contributions to the film industry, he reveled in such an honor with the signature refinement and sophistication that had been his hallmark since his initial foray into the Hollywood community.
He was the first Black person to be awarded the Academy Award for best actor in 1963 for his role as well-rounded handyman Homer Smith in the film “Lillies of the Field.” Poitier played itinerant jack-of-all-trades who stops at a farm in Arizona in the desert to obtain some water for his car. and ends up providing his carpentry skills to a group of nuns.
Poitier’s films are considered among some of the most distinguished ever made by Hollywood. He was one of the most prominent actors of the 1960s and became the No. 1 box office star in America in 1967 with three smash box hits – “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” “In The Heat of The Night” and “To Sir With Love.” Very few actors of any generation have achieved or accomplished such a level of notoriety.
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Upon his death, the tributes were plentiful.”He was a gentle man and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years,” fellow Academy Award winner Denzel Washington told the Hollywood Reporter. Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry wrote on social media the “grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten.”
“For me, the greatest of the ‘Great Trees’ has fallen,” Oprah Winfrey wrote, calling Poitier a “friend, brother, confidant” and “wisdom teacher.”
In the widespread reactions both in and out of Hollywood, there was no mistaking that the soulful, sophisticated and revolutionary presence of a Hollywood giant had been silenced. For the most part, the films he starred in frequently delved into deeply controversial and intensely complex issues that usually eluded most other Black actors of his era.
Frank, fearless, forceful and without apology, Poitier deftly dissected the undeniable impositions, indignities and injustices that had and were still being perpetrated upon Black Americans and other people of color in his work. Without hesitation, he informed Americans about the abundant and bountiful history of people of African descent. In all aspects of his work, he demonstrated the routine resilience, pioneering spirit and patience that has been an ongoing staple of American culture as it relates to its citizens of color, in particular, Black Americans.
In his movies, Poitier skillfully showcased the dignity and pride of the Black experience to the entire world. In particular, he told Black men they were handsome, intelligent, resilient and cultured, and did so with unmistakable and unapologetic candor. This was evident by the intelligence in which he chose his roles. He was very astute about the culture of the America he was performing for.
A number of his film choices garnered the ire of certain Blacks and more radical whites, who felt that he personified the image of a non-threatening, accommodating, “safe Negro.” The late film critic Pauline Kael wrote that “Sidney Poitier seems to always play the all American boy next door. Such an image is somewhat tiring.” In a more scathing acidic critique, New York Times film critic Clifford Mason wrote “He remains unreal, as he has for nearly two decades, playing essentially the same role, the antiseptic, one-dimensional hero.”
Critics aside, not even his more ardent detractors could deny Poitier’s undisputed power on the screen, no matter how subtle or blatant his acting was.
Race, class, religion, sexual politics and others dynamics have consistently roiled American society, and Poitier, with his keen precision and occasional humorous wit, fearlessly addressed such issues. Such pensive commentary prompted segments of American society to engage in some reflection and serious soul searching. Indeed, his demeanor was so sophisticated that many people eagerly followed his every move.
Sidney Poitier was one of a kind. His level of talent, intellect, insight, skill and other assets were undeniably admirable. The ample outpouring of admiration and respect he has received was well deserved. He was a legend during his time on Earth. He will be missed. May he rest in peace.
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.