Newsmaker: Sidney Poitier

The legendary actor, director and writer, who was too ill to accept his Bafta Fellowship award this week, was crucial in breaking down Hollywood’s racial bias and continues to be a force to reckon with.
Newsmaker Sidney Poitier for February 19th, 2016 Edition. Illustration by Kagan McLeod
Newsmaker Sidney Poitier for February 19th, 2016 Edition. Illustration by Kagan McLeod

Sidney Poitier was too ill to attend the 2016 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) Film Awards to receive his Fellowship gong in person at the event’s star-studded bash in London this week.

Yet, appearing on screen from his home in Los Angeles, the 88-year-old actor showed that he had lost little of that smooth, understated charisma that not only thrust him to the forefront of Hollywood as a young man, but also helped him repeatedly break down colour barriers that had plagued the American film industry for decades.

The Fellowship award – the highest honour that Bafta bes­tows, which is given to actors as a recognition of their lifetime achievement – was presented to the multi-award winning Poitier by his daughter, Sydney, and fellow actor Jamie Foxx. A visibly frail Poitier, who had reportedly been advised by his doctors not to make the transatlantic flight, moved the audience with a dignified and gently delivered acceptance speech that put the rest of the evening’s winners in the shade.

“Today my cup runneth over because I am here with my daughter and the future filmmakers of the world in celebration of this wonderful art form,” he said. “To my family, my life force, I am nothing without you. And all of you, thank you for your warm embrace and this extraordinary moment and memory I shall cherish.”

It was a fitting moment for a man who forged a highly successful career as an actor, director and writer – and committed civil-rights activist. As a performer who made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, it was little surprise to see that those who trumpeted Poitier’s contribution to cinema during the award ceremony touched on (the still thorny topic of) race in modern America.

Oprah Winfrey, an all-round success story herself, said “Poitier became a symbol of what was possible as an African-American in the United States”.

Against the backdrop of the Oscars race-row over the lack of nominations for black actors in the forthcoming Academy Awards, Poitier’s recognition is also socially pertinent. Indeed, that the issue of race in America still haunts even its thriving, revenue-churning film industry more than 50 years after Poitier’s groundbreaking Oscar glory was surely not lost on the performers in the room, many of whom will be gracing the red carpet during the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood on February 28.

Poitier was born on February 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. His Bahamian parents were in the US at the time, and the infant Poitier – perhaps overeager to make his mark in the world – arrived two months premature. He struggled through his traumatic beginnings and when he became strong enough, he departed the US with his parents for the Bahamas, where his father owned a tomato farm on Cat Island. There, he spent his first 10 years living close to nature and working on the family farm, before moving to the then-British colony’s capital, Nassau. In Nassau, he experienced his first taste of “city life”. And it was there he saw his first films.

He left school at age 12 – but without an education, Poitier’s future prospects in the Caribbean appeared grim. Drifting towards a life of trouble, his energies were redirected by his father, who dispatched Poitier to his birthplace of Miami, where one of his brothers was living. But life in 1940s America came as a shock to the young Poitier, who was forced to live a life of segregation. The US, unlike the virtually all-black society of the Bahamas, was dominated by a white population that, especially in the South, saw itself as morally and racially superior to its black counterparts.

After a period washing dishes at a resort in Georgia, Poitier set off for the bright lights of New York City. Life in the Big Apple was hard – and the 16-year-old was forced to sleep rough. In an attempt to escape the cold, he lied about his age to join the US Army. But his career in the army was less than illustrious. After a nine-month spell, and in what must have been his first un­official dramatic role for the soon-to-be superstar, he feigned insanity to obtain a discharge – a ruse he admitted to in his 2000 autobiography, The Measure of a Man – A Spiritual Autobiography.

His return to New York must have seemed like a walk of shame for the down-on-his-luck Poitier, but an impulse to audition for Harlem’s American Negro Theatre changed his fortunes. He read, but was mocked for his heavy Cari­bbean accent and poor verbal skills by the theatre’s director, who sent him on his way. Rather than dwell on it, however, Poitier sought to improve his lot by educa­ting himself between shifts as a dishwasher, reading news­papers and listening to the radio in an attempt to lose his boy­hood accent.

After six months of intensive practice, he returned to the American Negro Theatre where, putting his past failure behind him, he was finally accepted into its acting ranks. In a life that had once seemed so troublesome, weary and fruitless, Poitier’s early acting turns soon gave him some much-needed purpose. He made his Broadway debut in 1946, and in 1950 he made the leap onto the big screen in the racially charged picture, No Way Out, in which he starred as a young doctor attending to a bigoted patient. In pre-civil rights era America, black actors were often given the role of servants, but Poitier, handsome and quietly commanding, wowed both the African-American community and moviegoers in general, and news of his success quickly reached his home nation of the Bahamas. Yet, such was the controversy over the film’s depiction of racial violence, that No Way Out was banned in most southern US states.

He followed his successful debut with Cry, the Beloved Country (1951), a film set in apartheid-­era South Africa, but made his career breakthrough in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle in which he portrayed a student at an inner-city school. Up until Blackboard Jungle, however, Poitier’s film career had been no easy ride – and he had struggled to make a living. Yet, when he earned his first Oscar nomination for 1958’s The Defiant Ones, starring as an escaped convict opposite Tony Curtis, in what was another racially charged production, he finally proved himself a box-office draw.

Politics and the African-­American struggle for equality – in which Poitier was involved – dominated 1960s America. And it was his 1964 Oscar success in Lilies of the Field, in which he starred as an aimless handyman who is persuaded to build a chapel for an order of East German nuns, that cemented his place in history. Although Hattie McDaniel had secured an Oscar for her role as a domestic servant in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, making her the first African-­American to win an Academy Award, Poitier’s success came in a role that fell outside the traditional stereotype that had once pigeonholed black actors trying to make a living in American film.

His Oscar apart, Poitier’s movie roles in the 1960s knocked down racial barriers like dominoes. A Patch of Blue saw him become romantically involved with a young, blind white woman; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner­ saw him portray a black doctor meeting his white fiancée’s parents for the first time; In the Heat of the Night witnessed Poitier’s homicide detective attempt to solve a murder case in the Deep South, while dealing with the prejudices of the locals; and one of his biggest hits, To Sir With Love, in which Poitier plays a teacher who is forced to deal with social and racial issues at an inner-city school in Britain.

Poitier, who divorced his first wife after 15 years in 1965 and married again in 1976, and is a father to six daughters, reduced his acting commitments in the 1970s after criticism from some that his characters were too upstanding. He chose instead to throw himself into causes such as the Bahamas quest for independence from the United Kingdom. It achieved this in 1973 – and a year later he received a knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. In the British Commonwealth – of which the Bahamas remains a part – he is known as Sir Sidney Poitier.

Poitier, who holds dual Bahamian and US citizenship, made his directorial film debut in 1972, and in 1980 he published his first autobiography, This Life. In 1997, he opted for a life in diplomacy when he accepted a role to serve as the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan. He also served as the Caribbean nation’s ambassador to Unesco, the UN’s cultural organisation. In 2009, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama.

For a man self-made in every way, who broke down racial barriers in 1950s and 1960s America with aplomb, today’s racial travails in the country’s film industry appear incomparable. Indeed, Poitier’s career success has shown just how far modern America has come. But, with his Bafta Fellowship award coming just weeks before the race-row inflicted Oscars, perhaps he has also shown how far the country has yet to go.

Published: February 18, 2016 04:00 AM


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