Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier is an American actor born on February 20, 1920 to Evelyn and Reginald James Poitier, two Bahamian farmers. Sidney and his family grew up in poverty, he was born in Florida when his parents were on a visit, but grew up in Bahamas. After returning to Florida he moved on to New York at 17 years of age, he became a dishwasher in the big town where he learned to read the newspaper from a waiter. Later, he joined the US Army, but after some time, he returned to his job as a dishwasher.

Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night

Sidney Poitier got his breakthrough when an audition landed him a role in the American Negro Theater. He never looked back after that. All along his career, Poitier believed that he had a responsibility to set an example for future African American actors as he was the most successful colored actor of his time; so, he rejected the stereotype roles and played only the characters that brought out his acting talent. In recognition of Poitier’s work, the American Film Institute named him the 22nd greatest male actor of Hollywood.  

Blackboard Jungle screenshot

Sidney Poitier as young actor in Blackboard Jungle.

Poitier’s first film was No Way Out (1950). In the social drama Blackboard Jungle (1955) he did a greater mark as the young student Gregory Miller. Sidney Poitie gained recognition for his minor roles, and eventually, he was offered more prominent roles than his contemporary colored actors.

Academy Award nominations

The Defiant Ones screenshot

Michael Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones.

Poitier made waves in Hollywood when he became the first male black actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for his work in the movie The Defiant Ones (1958) that depicted the relationship between a black and a white man in a creative way. Noah (Poitier) and Jon (Michael Curtis) are prisoners on escape, but the circumstances are not pleasing for none of them as being chained together. Besides the psychical hindrance, there is another – they are black and white. The performance from Poitier in The Defiant Ones is blistering and one of the best in his career.

He later won the award in 1963 for his role as Homer Smith in the movie Lilies of the Field. He portrayed the role of an itinerant worker who meets a group of struggling East German nuns; he played a very touching character that understands the nuns’ plight and completes their task of building a new chapel.

In the Heat of the Night screenshot

Poiter's character Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night.

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is one of the greatest movies with Sidney Poitier. This film brilliantly shows us the racism in the 1960s. Poitier plays Virgil Tibbs, a Philadelphia police detective, who is wrongly accused of murdering a local wealthy man. Police officer Gillespie, with his prejudice against the blacks, concludes that Virgil committed the crime. After Virgil reveals that he fast he is a police detective, his superiors ask him to stay back and help Gillespie solve the case. Undaunted by the racist public of Mississippi, Virgil catches the murderer. In the end, he earns Gillespie’s respect.

Later the same year Poiter would play against stars like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Joanne who is an upper-class young woman with liberal upbringing brings home her fiancé, Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr. (played by Poitier). He is welcomed by her parents, but they are surprised to see that he is black. From this point, tensions arise between the families of John and Joanne. Finally, with the intervention of Joanne father, the young couple gets married with the consent of both families. The subject matter is interesting, but partly ruined by a movie that can't avoid preaching about its subject and there are sometimes too much fine words.

In To Sir, With Love had premiere in 1967 and once again the central theme is the racial concerns between black and white in American society. Poitier plays Mark Thackeray, a talented but unemployed engineer who lands in a temporary teaching job in the North Quay Secondary School of London. Mark soon learns that the school is filled with students expelled from other local schools for their antics. The pupils taunt him in many ways, but he wins their respect in the end. He then gets a rob offer as an engineer elsewhere, and he rejects it upon finding that he is attached to the students. The movie got a sequel nineteen years later with Poitier in attendance.

Sidney Poitier set a path for great African American actors like Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Denzel Washington to follow. He is a true acting legend that inspired a generation of actors.

Link to Sidney Poitier filmography

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