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Sidney Poitier: The actor who broke down Hollywood's racial barriers

Sidney Poitier

Image source, PA

Sidney Poitier, who has died aged 94, once turned down the role of Othello because he did not want to be typecast as a black actor.

It underlined the dilemma faced by a man who broke down many of Hollywood’s racial barriers.

As the first black winner of the Academy Awards’ Best Actor statuette, he was always aware of being the standard-bearer for greater racial integration.

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But often he felt he had become something of a racial token, and this denied him the opportunity of taking on more varied roles.

He died on Friday, aged 94, the Bahamian foreign minister announced.

Sidney Poitier was born on 20 February 1927 in Miami, Florida.

His parents were Bahamian farmers who had travelled to the US to sell tomatoes. His premature birth meant he gained US citizenship as well as Bahamian.

Relatives believed his father’s family originated in Haiti and that his ancestors were runaway slaves.

He was brought up on Cat Island in the Bahamas before the family moved to the capital, Nassau.

Sidney Poitier & Glenn Ford

Image source, Ronald Grant

Aged 15 he went to live with his brother in Miami before moving to New York, where he worked as a dishwasher.

It was in the US that he experienced racism for the first time.

“I lived in a country where I couldn’t get a job, except those put aside for my colour or my caste.”

After a spell in the US Army he joined the American Negro Theatre, which had been set up as a community project in Harlem in 1940.

Film breakthrough

Unfortunately Poitier was tone-deaf and was unable to sing, something audiences felt was a prerequisite of black actors at that time.

Instead he decided his future lay as a serious stage actor and he was offered a leading role in a production of Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata in 1946.

It was a sign of the times that the production featured only black actors.

Sidney Poitier & Lilia Skala

Image source, Ronald Grant

In 1949 he took the difficult decision to move away from stage productions and into films.

It was a sound decision. His performance in the 1950 film No Way Out, in which he played a newly-qualified doctor confronted by a racist patient, brought him to the attention of the studios.

His breakthrough came in The Blackboard Jungle in 1955, in the role of a disruptive pupil in an inner-city school.

The film was immensely popular, not least because it was one of the first to have a soundtrack featuring rock ‘n’ roll, including Bill Haley’s classic Rock Around the Clock.

‘I believed in brotherhood’

The Defiant Ones, in 1958, saw Poitier nominated for best actor at the Academy Awards, and he won a Bafta for the same film.

Five years later he was awarded an Oscar for Lilies of the Field, the first black winner of the Best Actor trophy.

With the growing civil rights movement in the US, it was inevitable Poitier would find himself lauded as an example of black achievement. It was a role he gladly accepted.

Poster for the film To Sir with love

Image source, Kobal

“I was a pretty good actor and I believed in brotherhood. I hated racism and segregation. And I was a symbol against those things.”

However, he was concerned that his Oscar may have been indicative of Hollywood’s need for a token black actor, rather than something he achieved on merit.

Then 1967 saw him at his commercial peak with three films, making him Hollywood’s most bankable star that year.

He played a newly-qualified teacher in a tough London school in To Sir, With Love, based on the autobiographical novel by E R Braithwaite.

‘An exercise in being real’

His character’s experience of being an immigrant in London mirrored that of many West Indians who came to Britain during the 1950s and ’60s.

“Acting isn’t a game of ‘pretend’,” he once said. “It’s an exercise in being real.”

Poitier was nominated for Bafta and Golden Globe awards for Norman Jewison’s film In the Heat of the Night.

Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night

Image source, Ronald Grant

He played a Philadelphia detective who found himself stranded in a red-necked Mississippi town on the night a businessman is murdered.

His developing relationship with the bigoted local sheriff, played by Rod Steiger, gave Poitier his strongest role and the film won five Oscars, including best picture.

Poitier’s response to Steiger’s question “What do they call you, boy?” produced one of cinema’s most famous lines: “They call me Mr Tibbs.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner featured Poitier as the boyfriend of a white, middle-class girl who takes him to meet her parents.

Directing and diplomacy

Played by Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, her parents were torn between their liberal values and their reaction to a prospective black son-in-law.

At the time filming began, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 US states. These laws were only revoked by the Supreme Court months before the film was released.

But Poitier faced criticism from some black civil-rights activists who complained his characters were just too good to be true.

It helped to persuade him to move away from acting roles. He involved himself in the campaign for Bahamian independence, achieved in 1973, and began a new career as a director.

By the end of the 1970s, Poitier had formed his own production company with other stars, including Paul Newman and Barbra Streisand.

Successes behind the camera included Stir Crazy, with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and the thrillers Shoot to Kill and Little Nikita.

Poitier became the first black actor to receive a life achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1992.

Five years later, he was appointed the Bahamas’ ambassador to Japan and he received a knighthood in 1974.

As a Bahamian citizen this was a substantive rather than an honorary award, although he did not use it in the US.

Poitier married Juanita Hardy in 1950, but the union ended in 1965. In 1976 he married the Canadian actress, Joanna Shimkus, and had six daughters from his two marriages. His daughter, Sydney Tamiia Poitier is also an actress.

In 2016 He was awarded a Fellowship by Bafta, a recognition of his outstanding contribution to cinema. Poor health prevented him travelling to London to receive the award so he appeared via a video link.

Poitier’s noted ability to play intelligent leading roles helped to break down racial taboos in American cinema and wider society, although he played down his importance as a role model.

“If I’m remembered for having done a few good things,” he once said, “and if my presence here has sparked some good energies, that’s plenty.”

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