When Jonathan Majors was a student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he taped a photocopied black and white headshot of Oscar-winning actor, director and activist Sidney Poitier on his wall.
“That’s the thing about Sidney, a lot of people know him from all his beautiful film work, but this is a theater-trained actor, that’s how I got to know him,” Majors tells Variety of the impact Poitier had on his career. “That’s why he was up in my dorm room — because I didn’t know anything about film — I just knew this man played Walter Lee [Younger from ‘A Raisin in the Sun’] on Broadway — the Hamlet, the King Lear of the African American canon.”
When Poitier died in January, at age 94, tributes poured in from across the industry and among the salutes was the Gotham Film and Media Institute’s posthumous presentation of the 2022 Icon tribute, which Majors, as the youngest member of the Gotham’s Board of Directors, was tapped to present to Poitier’s daughters Anika, Sherri and Pamela Poitier.
“We talk a lot about standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and our predecessors. It’s very romantic, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s quite humbling,” Majors says, reflecting on the moment. “Because I’m standing there, at the Gotham Awards, saying this man’s name with no degree of separation. That was cool for me.”
Onstage at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City, Majors quoted from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” telling the crowd that Poitier’s performance in that film “gave me life and drive.” He explained: “That sentiment activated the rebel in me and pushed me and my artistry to another level. It was my initiation into the artist vanguard from which you, sir, were and forever will be the chairman of the board.”
Then, after Poitier’s daughters took stage to accept the award on their father’s behalf, Majors called for them to “Hold on!” There was one more surprise in store.
The actor announced the creation of the Gotham’s Sidney Poitier Initiative, which he described as “an ambitious set of programs developed around the spirit Sidney Poitier brought to the world as he broke down the barriers in the film industry and the minds of audiences. SPI aims to expand on this legacy to support the next generation of filmmakers.”
The program’s pillars are focused on mentorship, scholarship, project funding and career advancement, aligned in support of Black and other marginalized artists following in Poitier’s trailblazing footsteps. As the audience clapped and cheered the announcement, Poitier’s daughters beamed with pride. Thanks to an email Majors sent a couple months prior, the Poitiers were already in the know about the budding organization.
“I was nervous to write it, because it’s their daddy,” he says. “I knew his work intimately, but I didn’t know him personally. I know a few things about him just from reading his biography, and it starts with those girls. It was delicate.”
The goal wasn’t to “woo them” or convince them to get on board with the Gotham’s idea to create an initiative in Poitier’s name, but instead to ask their permission and explain what he wanted to do with it.
“I just aspired to tell the truth in as clear and basic as I possibly could, to let them know explicitly that this thing is only going to happen if they allowed it to happen,” Majors adds. “And if they allowed it to happen, I was gonna take it as far as I can, personally.”
Once Majors got the Poitier family’s sign off, he and The Black List Founder Franklin Leonard got to work recruiting other prominent Black actors, filmmakers, producers and executives on board.
“David [Oyelowo] was probably the first person I went to, and then Kim Coleman [casting director for “Da 5 Bloods” and “Lovecraft Country”] was another person to jump in, with no conversation,” Majors recalls. “Gugu [Mbatha-Raw] was also top of the list.”
There was a flurry of texts and emails to former co-stars, like his “Lovecraft Country” family Courtney B. Vance (and Angela Bassett, both of whom are Yale School of Drama alum like Majors) and Jurnee Smollett or “The Harder They Fall” star Idris Elba. Majors also called on his classmates, including Winston Duke, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Brian Tyree Henry; he hit up the homies, like Taylor Russell and Thuso Mbedu; and chased after artists he admires, such as Colman Domingo, Billy Porter and Don Cheadle.
Together, Majors and Leonard enlisted a who’s who of the industry to put their time and talent toward the cause of creating a smoother path for the next generation of talent. Also supporting the initiative are Lorrie Bartlett, Nicole Beharie, Halle Berry, Adriene Bowles, Stephanie Allain Bray, Nicole Brown, Emerson Davis, Danielle Deadwyler, Daveed Diggs, J. D. Dillard, Peter Dodd, Cynthia Erivo, DeVon Franklin, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Aldis Hodge, Mike Jackson, Kasi Lemmons, Alana Mayo, Chelsea McKinnies, Nyambi Nyambi, Taylour Paige, Nate Parker, Jodie Turner Smith, Wynn Thomas, Jesse Williams and Jeffrey Wright.
The idea is that, by banding together, this group of industry veterans can help eradicate the age-old question of “Who is the next Sidney Poitier?” Because it’s not about the success of one, but that of everyone, at once.
“SPI is about helping us hit from 100 different angles to support the industry, help grow the industry and help grow the human beings who are making the art in this industry,” Majors says. “And, yes, we are focused on the Black diaspora, on the marginalized artists who have been penalized in our industry — though the industry is making efforts. How do we enlist and support more filmmakers to enter into this conversation about humanity.”
And with the backing of the Gotham, as well as Apple and Google, plans are moving full steam ahead.
“Through financial support, access to industry decision-makers, and resources offered by The Gotham, we hope that this initiative empowers artists and executives to follow in Mr. Poitier’s footsteps by mentoring and supporting talent who have unique stories to tell and perspectives to share,” says Jeffrey Sharp, executive director of the Gotham, in a statement.
To note, the focus of the Sidney Poitier Initiative isn’t just about getting more talent in the door, but training them to stay there. The organization has already begun outreach to undergrad and graduate institutions (from Yale to the HBCUs of the world) to create lanes for college visits as well as building out their mentorship programs, in addition to planning workshops and seminars in association with the Gotham.
“My big thing is education,” Majors says, so he and SPI are already in talks about how to support the school and the Poitier’s aim to start in the icon’s native Bahamas. “This is a farm-to-table organization. The least contact you’re going to have is someone from SPI Zooming in, we’re boots on the ground. I’m going to be there in the room.”
By helping the artists of tomorrow navigate some of the more practical elements that no one really walks you through — from how to read a one-liner in an audition to what to wear to a meeting — the group hopes those that come behind them can avoid some of the speed bumps and pitfalls that can derail their growth in the business.
“We need to have them ready. Industry ready. Battle ready. Meeting ready,” Majors says. “In order to spark a real, beautiful collaboration that ultimately lifts our entire industry at large — Black Hollywood, white Hollywood, mainstream Hollywood, indie Hollywood — we all rise.”
If filmmaking is a democracy, he offers, SPI can be the Congress. Or to present another analogy, Majors mentions a scene from the “Sidney” documentary where Poitier explains the culture shock he felt after moving from the Bahamas, where everyone was Black, to the U.S.
“I think the biggest thing we can do is help them move from the islands,” Majors says. “We’re here in the initial stages, to help them transfer to the industry, to the mainland and help them translate what’s going on and be there for them to ask the questions.”
On a macro scale, though, forming this collective mirrors the work Poitier and Harry Belafonte did in their time, talking about the injustice of the caste system in Hollywood.
“There is an impulse in Sidney, Harry, myself and all the people who joined to shake up the entertainment structure as it’s been, because there’s a long way to go,” Majors says. “Sidney and Harry joked among themselves that if the world was operating in the way that it was supposed to operate with diversity — casting real-life individuals and telling real-life stories truthfully — there’d be 15 Sidney Poitiers and 12 Harry Belafontes. This mission is to break the idea that there can only be one.”
And Majors fully understands that the stakes are high.
“Reputation is the something that Black artists and marginalized artists can’t get cavalier with, and Sidney was anything but cavalier about his name and his work,” he notes. “I don’t think he set out to leave a legacy as much as he set out to make an impression. He was so brilliant that the legacy was a byproduct of his existence. Now to push the legacy forward, to humbly build upon it, is everything.”