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Sidney Poitier, Who Paved The Way For Black Actors, Dies At 94

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The first Black performer to win the Academy Award for best actor, for “Lilies of the Field,” he once said he felt “as if I were representing 15, 18 million people with every move I made.”

Poitier overcame an impoverished background in the Bahamas and softened his thick island accent to rise to the top of his profession at a time when prominent roles for Black actors were rare. He won the Oscar for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played an itinerant laborer who helps a group of White nuns build a chapel.

Many of his best-known films explored racial tensions as Americans were grappling with social changes wrought by the civil rights movement. In 1967 alone, he appeared as a Philadelphia detective fighting bigotry in small-town Mississippi in “In the Heat of the Night” and a doctor who wins over his White fiancée’s skeptical parents in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Poitier’s movies struggled for distribution in the South, and his choice of roles was limited to what White-run studios would produce. Racial taboos, for example, precluded him from most romantic parts. But his dignified roles helped audiences of the 1950s and 1960s envision Black people not just as servants but as doctors, teachers and detectives.

At the same time, as the lone Black leading man in 1960s Hollywood, he came under tremendous scrutiny. He was too often hailed as a noble symbol of his race and endured criticism from some Black people who said he had betrayed them by taking sanitized roles and pandering to Whites.

Sidney Poitier

“It’s been an enormous responsibility,” Poitier told Oprah Winfrey in 2000. “And I accepted it, and I lived in a way that showed how I respected that responsibility. I had to. In order for others to come behind me, there were certain things I had to do.”

The youngest of seven children, Sidney Poitier was born several months premature in Miami on February 20, 1927, so tiny he could fit in his father’s hand. His parents were tomato farmers who often traveled to and from Florida and the Bahamas.

He was not expected to live. His mother consulted a palm reader, who assuaged her fears.

But he got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant, where a fortuitous encounter changed his life. An elderly waiter took an interest in the teen and spent nights after work reading the newspaper with him to improve his comprehension, grammar and punctuation.

“That man, every night, the place is closed, everyone’s gone, and he sat there with me week after week after week,” Poitier told CBS News. “And he told me about punctuations. He told me where dots were and what the dots mean here between these two words, all of that stuff.”

Soon after, Poitier landed work with the American Negro Theatre, where he took acting lessons, softened his Bahamian accent and landed a stage role as an understudy to Harry Belafonte. This led to roles on Broadway and eventually caught the attention of Hollywood.

Sidney Poitier

To Sir, With Love

Then came 1967, and one of the most remarkable years any Hollywood star has had before or since. Poitier starred in three high-profile films, starting with “To Sir, With Love,” a British drama about an idealistic teacher who must win over rebellious teenagers in a tough East London school.

By this time, Poitier was commanding $1 million a movie, and the filmmakers weren’t sure they could afford to hire him. So they struck a deal to pay the actor scale — the minimum legal amount — in exchange for a percentage of the movie’s box-office grosses. Although common in Hollywood today, it was a radical idea at the time — and a savvy one for Poitier. “To Sir, With Love” became a big hit, earning him a huge payday.

Later he became a director and turned to TV

In the 1970s, Poitier scaled back on acting and turned to directing, which he felt gave him more control over his film projects. He teamed up with his pal Belafonte for the Western “Buck and the Preacher,” his directorial debut. He directed and co-starred with Bill Cosby in the comedy caper “Uptown Saturday Night,” which, along with its spiritual sequels “Let’s Do It Again” and “A Piece of the Action,” featured largely Black casts.

And in 1980, he directed “Stir Crazy,” the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder prison-break comedy, which became one of his biggest hits.

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