Sidney Poitier, America’s First Black Movie Star, Dies at 94
Sidney Poitier, America’s first black movie star and notable Oscar winner, died on the evening of January 6, 2022. He was 94.
Poitier was born in Miami, Florida, but he grew up mostly in the Bahamas. His parents were tomato farmers who worked in both locations.
When Poitier was a teenager, his family sent him to live with an older brother in Miami to find better opportunities. However, he soon decided to pursue an acting career in New York. Of course, at the time there were few parts available for a black man, let alone leading roles. Poitier once said, “The kind of Negro played on the screen was always negative, buffoons, clowns, shuffling butlers, really misfits.”
To succeed as an actor in the 1940s and ‘50s, Poitier had to overcome barriers due to not only his race, but also his poor reading skills and Bahamian accent. He found help from a kindly waiter at a restaurant where he worked — the two read newspapers together to improve Poitier’s reading comprehension. At the American Negro Theatre, Poitier studied acting and learned to soften his accent. Soon he was an understudy for Harry Belafonte in a stage role, and then he landed parts on Broadway.
Poitier’s first Hollywood movie was “No Way Out,” released in 1950. In 1958, he starred with Tony Curtis in “The Defiant Ones” and became the first black man to earn an Oscar nomination.
In 1963, he starred as an itinerant laborer who helps nuns build a chapel in “Lilies of the Field.” For this role, he won the Best Actor Oscar — the first such award for a black man. (The next such award for a black leading man would not come for decades, when Denzel Washington was honored for 2001’s “Training Day.”)
Poitier explored racial prejudice and oppression in many of his roles, including “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Poitier brought dignity and self-confidence to every character.
Some criticized him for taking sanitized roles in mostly white productions, but as a pioneer in mid-century Hollywood, he had little choice. He once told Oprah Winfrey, “In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.” Nevertheless, he sometimes frustrated his agent by turning down roles that seemed demeaning or did not reflect his values.
Offstage and off-camera, Poitier used his fame to support the civil rights movement in the U.S. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
In his later years, he worked as a director, focusing on projects that featured largely black casts. These included “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Stir Crazy.” He occasionally appeared on television, portraying Thurgood Marshall and Nelson Mandela, among others.
From 1997 to 2007, Poitier was the Bahamian ambassador to Japan.
Poitier received many honors for his body of work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, a life achievement award from the American Film Institute, and the Chaplin Award from the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Sidney Poitier died in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife Joanna and six daughters.
To learn more about Sidney Poitier, read his memoir, “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography,” or take a look at some of our favorite Poitier quotes.