For many people of my generation who grew up in the 1960s and 70s the presence and image of black people dominating the silver screen was a rarity. So to do it with grace, intelligence, allied to an immense desire to push the boundaries of racial equality within his craft, makes Poitier a very special presence in Hollywood and an iconic artist of exceptional talent. Watching him command the screen in a way few other black performers before him had, one wonders if directors were led by him, rather than directed him.
Variety described him as the most important actor in Hollywood in 1968 such was his impact. Poitier’s work humanised the black presence through a range of outstanding performances in ground-breaking films
Emerging at the end of the 50s in the little-known films No Way Out, and Edge of The City both urban thrillers that laid the foundations of Poitier’s career. The former film dared to tackle urban racism head on in a way that previous Hollywood normally backed away from. Fearing the film’s release in the South would provoke riots Twentieth Century Fox downplayed the films subject matter and pushed it as a Noir melodrama. Nevertheless 23-year-old Poitier had a hit on his hands and the industry took notice.
His acting often depicted principled, intelligent polite, clean-cut males that cut through to the
general public. In the great scheme of things his race almost became an irrelevance. 1963 he picked up his first Oscar award for Lilies of The Field in which he played a charming ex-GI helping a group of German nuns to build a chapel in the Arizona Desert. The entire shoot was completed in 14 days ridiculous for an Academy Award winning film.
Catapulted forward, Poitier was arguably the most bankable film star in America by the mid-1960s, confident enough to take on a series of interracial love stories. Starting out with the lesser celebrated A Patch of Blue 1965 a film about a black man and a blind white girl he then hit the top again with Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967). Poitier was redefining the image of African American actors. Challenging and pioneering - through his work, he opened up new possibilities in the roles for black actors. He epitomised the troubled, persecuted, but ultimately conciliatory black man. Poitier rode these stories with majestic authority and consummate professionalism. Even the unbelievable, superhuman doctor presented in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, gave us moments of honest reflections on inter-generational attitudes to race relations.
In terms of the UK, Poitier’s, like Paul Robeson before him, was well received by British audiences and critics alike. His 1958 performance in the Defiant Ones gave him his first Oscar nomination alongside Tony Curtis. However, in the UK he actually won the BAFTA for best foreign actor. His growing status internationally paved the way to make the strange and charmingly quirky project To Sir With Love set in an East End Secondary School. Here Poitier moves full circle performance wise from delinquent, to being the teacher at the centre of a group of unruly cockney youth. Offbeat it may have been, but it etched a permanent mark in British film history introducing a host of new stellar UK talent such as Una Stubb, Suzy Kendall and a memorable title track from singer Lulu
By the end of the 1960s huge social shifts were happening for women, the working class and black people. Change also meant it became more fashionable to disparage the types of clean cut, integrationist characters Poitier played. As civil rights demand morphed into shouts for Black Power, 70s audiences adapted to the urban social realism of films like Shaft Foxy Brown and Super Fly. Poitier also made the switch to directing producing a stream of black audience targeted films such as Uptown Saturday Night (1974), Let’s do it Again (1975) Piece of The Action (1977). His crowning
achievement during this period being the film Stir Crazy (1980) with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder a comedy that became the first black directed film to earn over $100m
The 1980s and 90s Poitier abandoned acting in favour of directing, making just occasional
appearances on screen and TV. The Political and diplomatic arena became the place of occupation inhis twilight years. Having been a significant organising figure during the heyday of civil rights including being a key figure in driving Martin Luther King’s march on Washington. Later also becoming an ambassador to both the Bahamas and Japan.
His passing this month on 6 January at the age of 94 years brings to the end the life of one of
cinemas great pioneers. Whatever critics of the post-civil rights era may argue today, it has to be said no man did more in the 20 th century to alter the screen images of black people and hastened the arrival of the ‘The New Black’. His on-screen representation of struggles for equality and humanity are there to be found in an impressive body of work. This work cemented the calls for radical change from the civil rights movement at a time when the impact on wider society and its consciousness was becoming real, leading up to the legal and political changes that were brought about in the 1960s
For me and many people he gives his best performance in the film In The Heat of The Night. Directed by Canadian Norman Jewison. Poitier was part of a joint lead with Rod Steiger. The plot of a black cop trying to solve a murder in a racist Mississippi town was extreme fish out of water territory.
Hugely innovative for its time. What Poitier’s performance meant to the civil right movement is best summed up by writer and film critic Nelson George and his take on Virgil Tibbs
‘ Sidney’s heroic bearing, that face full of character and intelligence and confidence made him the man I wanted to be. Today I know I’ve failed in my efforts to replicate Sir Sid. In 1967, however, it all seemed possible. If he existed, so could I’
Sidney Poitier RIP