The Importance of Sidney Poitier

Cejai Johnson, Contributing Writer

Sidney Poitier, at age 94, died on January 6, 2022. He was one of the last remaining actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood and the first African American actor to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier became a very influential figure in the movie industry, as his accomplishments would play a vital role in weakening the barriers for Black actors and expanding the range of roles they could play.

Poitier, an immigrant from the Bahamas, had faced obstacles quite different from the experience in his native country. As an immigrant, his thick accent caused him difficulty when he initially pursued acting in the United States. When Portier had first tried out for Harlem’s American Negro Theatre (ANT), he was laughed out for his botched performance.

Despite the humiliation, Poitier remained persistent. After spending hours learning an American accent by listening to radio announcers, Poitier had an improved performance when he auditioned again. He would go on to make his Broadway debut in Days of Our Youth when he filled in for Harry Belafonte during production.

After years of his successful Broadway career, Poitier starred in his first Hollywood role for No Way Out, where he plays a physician and intern tasked with treating racist residents. This would be the start of his strong movie career, as he goes on to play in numerous films such as Lilies of the FieldIn the Heat of the NightGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, and many more. Poitier had also directed a fair share of movies such as Stir CrazyBuck and The Preacher, and A Warm December.

Before Poitier, the few roles for Black actors were typically one-dimensional characters that perpetuated stereotypes. His contributions helped to broaden the opportunities for Black actors far beyond roles that pander to racist and colorist views. The actor paved the way for many POC performers including Denzel Washington (the second Black man to win Best Actor), Halle Berry (the first Black woman to win Best Actress), the renowned Oprah Winfrey, and many more.

It is important to note Poitier’s activism outside of the studios, as he was a strong participant in the Civil Rights movement. He collaborated with fellow actor Harry Belafonte and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in 1963’s March on Washington, and 1966’s March against Fear. As Dr. King once said about the actor: “He is a man of great depth, a man of great social concern, a man who is dedicated to human rights and freedom.”