Sidney Poitier — who turns 94 on Feb. 20 — has received virtually every showbiz award possible: An Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, plus Life Achievement Awards from AFI, BAFTA, NAACP Image Awards, SAG and Kennedy Center Honors, to name a few. Though the kudos have been plentiful, they aren’t enough to convey the depth of his lasting impact on the entertainment industry, starting with being the first Black winner of best actor Oscar for the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field.”
The film industry’s lack of diversity is still an issue in the 21st century. But diversity was nearly non-existent when Poitier made his film debut in the 1950 “No Way Out.” There had been other Black actors in lead film roles, including James Edwards and Harry Belafonte, but they were extremely rare. And Poitier captured the public imagination like no one before him, with his soft but powerful voice (with that slight, unidentifiable accent from the Bahamas) and, crucially, his integrity.
By 1965, two years after “Lilies of the Field,” he was such an established star that a Variety story carried the banner, “It’s Poitier or It’s Nothing,” saying that the studios were avoiding racial-themed films unless the actor starred in them. He was opening doors, but it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pervasive.
On Jan. 3, 1968, Variety declared “Poitier is the biggest film actor of the year, black or white.” He enjoyed three box office smashes in the previous year, “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” earning a then-spectacular fee of $750,000 per film.
But it wasn’t just the money. In that 1968 article, Variety declared that the actor had created fully fleshed-out characters. Poitier showed intelligence, leadership, humor and a playful sexuality that was “a million light years beyond” the stereotype of such earlier roles as the 1959 “Porgy and Bess.”
When Variety had announced his casting in “Porgy” on Dec. 11, 1957, the article said he’d originally turned down the role, due to “the fear that if improperly handled, ‘Porgy and Bess’ could conceivably be, to my mind, injurious to Negroes,” as he said.
This was a simple but extraordinary statement. At that point Poitier wasn’t a major star, having made only six films in seven years; his breakthrough in the 1958 “The Defiant Ones” was still a year away. And it was difficult enough for Black actors in the 1950s to get any roles. What’s more, “Porgy and Bess” was a high-profile project, based on the Gershwins-DuBose Heyward prestige stage hit, directed by Otto Preminger and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. But he had his principles and he stuck to them.
And in just a decade, the starring roles became better. For the next few decades, Poitier enlightened audiences by bringing three-dimensional characters to people who may have never met a Black person. He played characters that people wanted to know better.
Critics sometimes complained that his roles in “Lilies of the Field,” “A Patch of Blue” and “To Sir With Love,” among others, were too idealistic. The 1967 “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” hinges on the question of whether Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy will approve Poitier’s engagement to their daughter (Katherine Houghton). The joke among Hollywood sophisticates was that she wasn’t good enough for him.
But those criticisms misunderstood the national and international mood. Only six months before the film’s release, interracial marriages were still illegal in 17 of the 50 states, or one-third of the country. In June 1967, the Supreme Court overturned those laws. While “Guess Who’s Coming’s” message of tolerance may seem simplistic today, it was an eye-opener to many.
Also controversial that year was “In the Heat of the Night,” which won the best-picture Oscar. As a northern detective involved in a murder investigation in Mississippi, Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs exhibited all of the actor’s virtues: Intelligence, decency, humor, sensitivity and a boatload of charisma.
Tibbs maintains composure as he is hampered in his investigation by bigots. At one point, a powerful local white man slaps Tibbs, who slaps him back. It’s hard to convey how shocking that was to some audiences — and cathartic to others.
The movie came out only three years after the federal Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964 after a D.C. debate about the pros and cons of equal rights. More than one-fourth of Congress had voted against it.
As news events frequently remind us, racial equality is still an ongoing struggle, even after all these years. But Sidney Poitier made a difference. He’s still a reminder of what people — and Hollywood — are capable of.